Home » Paroisse Saint-Jean-Baptiste » Cimetiere St-Joseph: History of St. Joseph Cemetery

Cimetiere St-Joseph: History of St. Joseph Cemetery

[Ed. Note: The following is quoted from the booklet published by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate in 1994 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of St. Joseph Cemetery. It was written by the then director of the cemetery, Fr. Charles A. Breault, O.M.I. Fr. Paul Ouellette, O.M.I. assisted with many hours of research and Fr. Lucien Sawyer, O.M.I. edited the final text.]

Phase I ~ 1894 – 1928

In 1892, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate purchased 57 acres in East Chelmsford for a summer residence. It was bought from the McKennedy family. To preserve the country atmosphere, seven acres across the street were purchased some years later from the Sullivan family, long known as printers in the Lowell area. The acreage was used as a summer haven for only two years.

Although St. Joseph Parish in Lowell had been in existence for 26 years, its Franco-American parishioners did not have their own cemetery. St. Patrick Cemetery was the only Catholic cemetery in the area. Many of the early mill workers came from small French-Canadian villages where even the remotest parish had its own burial ground. And so Rev. André-Marie Garin, O.M.I., pastor of St. Joseph Parish, was allowed to transform part of what was an Oblate summer camp into a cemetery. St. Joseph Parish now had land it could use as a place of interment. St. Joseph Cemetery became the second Catholic cemetery in the Lowell area. Because of confusion with the Lithuanian St. Joseph Parish, founded in 1908, the original St. Joseph Parish became St. Jean-Baptiste Parish. The cemetery, however, retained its original name of St. Joseph Cemetery.

St. Joseph Cemetery was opened in March 1894, under the direction of Rev. Dioscoride Forget, O.M.I. The first burial was that of Mr. Alphonse Desormeau. In February of 1895, the first Oblate was buried, Rev. André-Marie Garin, O.M.I.

The first secretary to keep the books of the cemetery was Mr. Noel Bernier. He operated from a small office in St. Joseph rectory. Later he transacted business from the boys’ grammar school near the corner of Aiken and Merrimack Streets in downtown Lowell.

Tremblay House

[Tremblay House]

The custodian of the cemetery property for almost forty years was a hard-working parishioner, Mr. Pierre Tremblay. Aided by his family and other workers, he cleared the land, farmed it and kept animals. Mrs. Tremblay could be seen in the morning loading produce onto a wagon for sale in the Lowell markets. The Tremblays resided at first in a small two-room house on the grassy knoll. When that dwelling proved inadequate for them and their children, a new residence was built for the family further inside the property.

Since the cemetery was out in the country, at a considerable distance from the church, it was customary for Mr. Tremblay to meet the funeral procession at the corner of Riverneck Road and Plain Street. At first, mourners came in hacks drawn by a team of horses. Hacks could be rented for the occasion at $3.00 per wagon. Later the electric street railway ran funeral trolleys that transported 60 passengers at a cost of ten cents per person. Mourners would typically fill two or three cars. The casket was slid into a compartment below the seats. At the end of the line, the casket was transferred to a horse-drawn wagon and Mr. Tremblay would lead the procession down Riverneck Road to the cemetery.

Burial Vault

[Burial Vault]

In warm weather, graves were dug with pick and shovel. During the winter season, branches were piled over the gravesite and set ablaze. As the fire died down, the softened earth was removed by Mr. Tremblay and his helpers. The process was repeated as often as necessary to arrive at the correct depth. Sometimes ledge and rock had to be blasted away with dynamite. This was ably accomplished for many years by Mr. Napoleon Dumont who placed the explosives and set them off. In particularly harsh winters, bodies were placed in a granite mausoleum. The interments were then done in the Spring after the ground had thawed.

The first years of the cemetery saw the burial of large numbers of children who died of scarlet fever, croup, typhoid fever, influenza, or other childhood diseases. In 1894, from July 2 to July 20, 34 children were buried. In 1895, during the same month of July, 39 children were laid to rest. In July, August and September 1900, over 300 children were mourned. During the great influenza epidemic of 1918, 161 adults were buried in a single month.

Main entrance, St. Joseph Cemetery, 1920

[Main entrance of St. Joseph Cemetery, 1920]

In 1817, Rev. Eugene Turcotte, O.M.I., the new pastor of St. Jean-Baptiste Parish, immediately undertook measures to embellish the cemetery property. He replaced the crumbling wooden fence with a magnificent one of wrought iron. He enhanced the entrance with two marble angels. One was the Angel of the Resurrection, the other, the Angel of Death. Under Father Turcotte’s supervision the principal roads were cut and maple trees were planted on each side, in order to provide the cemetery with an atmosphere of peace and tranquility.

He also erected a beautiful Calvary scene on the highest point in the cemetery. This crucifix was later destroyed by a bolt of lightning. It was then replaced by a granite cross flanked by the figures of St. John and the Virgin Mary. The lone cross that stands there today bears the coat of arms and the motto of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate: “Evangelizare pauperibus misit me.” He sent me to preach the Good News to the poor.

Phase II ~ 1928 – 1969

On December 1, 1927, William Cardinal O’Connell, of Boston, issued the following statement:

Those in charge of cemeteries, priests and superintendents under them, are hereby directed to see to it that Perpetual Care be provided for all the graves of those interred in our cemeteries. Hereafter no monuments or stones may be erected on lots which are not recorded as provided with Perpetual Care; and if, after due notice, the people who own these lots have not seen to it that provisions have been made, the cemetery will take over the lot and deal with it as forfeited property.

Rev. Louis Bachand, O.M.I., newly appointed pastor of St. Jean-Baptiste, took immediate steps to execute the Cardinal’s recommendations. It was then decided to sell every new lot with a Perpetual Care Contract. Efforts were made to induce all previous lot owners to contribute to the care of their gravesites.

A new cemetery director, Rev. Lucien Brassard, O.M.I., was named on April 13, 1928. He began a systematic campaign to modernize many aspects of the cemetery. He upgraded the bookkeeping system with the help of Mr. Frank Redding. With the able assistance of Mr. John J. Meagher, a civil engineer and a pioneer in cemetery layout, he designed and constructed many projects. Me. Meagher was then the superintendent of St. Patrick Cemetery in Lowell. Father Brassard, guided by his friend, planned and supervised countless improvements at St. Joseph Cemetery. Over a period of thirty-five years, they continued the improvements that culminated in the selection of the sites for the present Office Building, Bell Tower, and Memorial Chapel. [Web Page Editor’s Note: The Office Building constructed in the mid-60s was razed in 2003 and replaced with a more spacious edifice.]

Phase III ~ 1969 – 1992

In 1969, Rev. Leo Monette, O.M.I. was named to succeed Father Brassard, who ended forty-one years of faithful and energetic leadership.

Father Monette developed four new sections in his twenty-three years of service. Each new section came with its own set of challenges. Once again this called for heavy earth-moving equipment to clear away wooded areas. Ledge had to be blasted. Land had to be leveled and seeded. The drainage had to be improved. The roads were resurfaced.

In the buildings a new heating and air conditioning system was installed. On the grounds the garden effect developed by Father Brassard was appropriately preserved. To this day these new sections are surrounded by flowering bushes that blossom at various times through Spring, Summer and Fall. All of creation seems to join in the song of hope and new life that is the theme of St. Joseph Cemetery.

The growth of a cemetery is greatly dependent upon the available land. In 1972, the Tenneco Gas Company owned a parcel of 11 acres abutting the southeast side. All that the company really needed was a narrow strip for the installation of an underground pipeline. Mr. Homer Bourgeois, then president of the Union National Bank, prevailed upon a business friend, Mr. Ames Putnam, chairman of Tenneco Gas, to donate the remainder of this property to St. Joseph Cemetery. This gift to the cemetery will make possible the development of additional sections in the future. A babbling brook located in this area might some day be incorporated in the scenic development of the cemetery.

In 1976, a beautiful fountain, built of large weather-tempered stones, appeared near the entrance to the chapel. A statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, donated in 1978 in memory of Mr. Stanislas Paquin, stands nearby. This tranquil scene accentuates the memorial of the Good Shepherd.

Veterans of the Second World War and the Korean War are commemorated by a nearby flagpole dedicated to their memory. From it waves the flag raised in memory of ll the veterans of American wars. A plaque at the foot of the pole honors Mr. Joseph Ouellette who was awarded a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor. The citation ends with: “Extraordinary heroism displayed by Private Ouellette.”

Further into the cemetery, a large granite monument pays tribute to all the Franco-American military veterans buried in these grounds.

The “Jardin des Anges,” or Garden of Angels, located opposite the chapel, is a delightfully simple monument composed of an angel flanked by two large granite plaques. The angel of the Resurrection is one of the two formerly found at what was the main entrance to the cemetery. This same angel now watches over the little children who have quietly made their own journey to new life. Inscribed with the names of these innocent babies, the plaques were donated in memory of Barbara Madore. They were dedicated in November, 1988.

Inside the cemetery chapel one may see on the wall above the entrance a larger-than-life painting of the Resurrection. Leon Hovsepian, a well-known artist from Worcester, was commissioned for this work to commemorate the 90th anniversary of St. Joseph Cemetery. The scene depicts the Risen Christ emerging from the tome while the frightened Roman soldiers are blinded by the event that is taking place. It is a powerful invitation to those who view the painting to ponder their belief in their own personal resurrection.

The painting was dedicated in November, 1984, in memory of Claire St. Arnaud and of Donald White.

Father Monette’s most visible addition to the grounds will always be remembered as his best. A granite and wrought iron arch announcing the “Via Crucis” opens the path to a complete set of Stations of the Cross. The monuments cover an expanse of three acres within the cemetery. Each station is a sculptured block of white carrara marble fixed atop a granite base. The pilgrim who undertakes to pray and meditate upon these figures must himself or herself walk the path which extends for the width of the cemetery.

At the conclusion of all fourteen stations, one is transported atop Mount Calvary to be dwarfed by three huge California redwood crosses. Larger-than-life figures of Christ and the two thieves hang there above statues of Mary, John, and Mary Magdalene. A beautiful blue slate plaza spreads over this area.

The Stations of the Cross were once part of the Ephpheta Retreat House grounds in Manville, Rhode Island. They were erected there in 1953 under the supervision of Father Monette, while he was Director of Retreats. After this facility was deactivated, the former director wisely sought to protect and preserve this priceless collection. The monuments were transported to St. Joseph Cemetery and were blessed by Bishop Alfred Hughes on Memorial Day, 1990. The names of the original donors remain on the monuments.

Two other groupings of statuary brought from Rhode Island must be mentioned. One is a magnificent six-foot carrara marble statue of Mary standing before the children of Fatima. The second consists of two angels flanking a huge marble sarcophagus, weighing seven tons. The latter was placed near the Oblate burial site, atop the hill. It is inscribed with the names of deceased Oblates who served the French people of Lowell but are not buried in this cemetery.

This spot also marks a future extension of the Oblate plot across the way, where fathers and brothers who belonged to the St. John the Baptist Province, now the Northern U.S. Province, lie buried.

End of quoted material.

Web Page Editor’s Note: A monument honoring Lowell’s Franco-American Veterans was erected in St. Joseph Cemetery and dedicated on May 30, 1933. It is made of granite from Barre, Vermont and measures 21 ½ feet high, 5 ½ feet long and one foot wide and bears the following inscriptions:

(In memory of those who died)

(In honor of those who served)

In the center of the monument are the inscriptions “GUERRE MONDIALE, 1917-1918” and “LES FRANCO-AMERICAINS RECONNAISSANTS.”

As part of the ceremony a Mass was celebrated in the open air by Rev. Louis G. Bachand, O.M.I. and music was provided by an augmented choir under the direction of Telesphore Malo, choir director of St. Joseph’s parish. Rev. J. A. Fortier, O.M.I., a former Lieutenant Colonel war chaplain and Pastor of Notre-Dame de Lourdes church delivered the sermon. Following the Mass, the honor of unveiling the monument fell to the Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, Lieutenant George Charrette, USN-Retired, hero of the Spanish American War.

Representatives of all Franco-American organizations were present for the occasion including, delegations from the Garde St-Louis, Garde Sacré-Coeur, Franco-American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, Spanish War Veterans, Boy Scouts of America, the C.M.A.C. and the Jewish Veterans.

In the early 1990s the Franco-American War Veterans, Post No.4 of Lowell, MA undertook the task of having the monument refurbished and adding two brass plates with an English translation of the inscriptions. The re-dedication was held on May 27, 1995.