Forgotten Famine-era Graves
Discovered in Massachusetts

One of theunearthed headstones at Calvary Cemetery. Another 600-900 headstones are estimated to remain burried. Waltham News Tribune.
One of theunearthed headstones at Calvary Cemetery. Another 600-900 headstones are estimated to remain burried. Waltham News Tribune.

By Adam Farley, Deputy Editor
October / November 2015

An estimated 600-900 neglected and forgotten Famine-era graves were discovered in Massachusetts in September when Rhode Islander Annie McMullen was attempting to trace her husband’s Irish ancestry in New England.

McMullen’s journey to discovery began several years ago when she became interested in learning more about her in-laws’ journey from Ireland to the U.S. She soon learned that her husband’s great-great-grandfather and three brothers came to the U.S. during the Famine, and that shortly afterwards one of the brothers died in a freak accident and was buried in the Irish Catholic Cemetery in Waltham, Massachusetts. But when she went to the cemetery, it was gone, replaced by a school, a new church, and residential housing.

“I began to wonder about all the individuals who have been searching their Irish family history and have not been able to find where their family members are buried,” she said. Eventually, she uncovered a news report that the graves in the cemetery had been reinterred in the city’s Calvary Cemetery following an agreement between Waltham and the Archdiocese of Boston in 1947. But when she went there, all she encountered was a field with a few headstones.

“That seemed odd, this big grassy area and only four headstones,” she told the Waltham News Tribune. So she took to excavating on her own, and discovered, under a few inches of topsoil, grave markers for immigrants from counties Cork, Kerry, Donegal, Galway, and more.

After her discovery, she reached out to the Waltham Historical Society and the Irish Ancestry Research Association. The triumvirate is embarking on a headstone reclamation project, hoping to restore the cemetery to its former state. ♦

10 Responses to “Forgotten Famine-era Graves
Discovered in Massachusetts”

  1. Annie McMullen says:

    Dear Irish America: Thank you ever so much for picking up our story. There is so much more to the story than what was published in the paper — my husband’s great great uncle, Charles McMullen, who hailed from Meenadreen, County Donegal was the individual who started me on the search for his grave. I just want to let you know that since this original article was published there has been a follow up article – we had a work weekend and were able to successfully unearth 161 headstones which have accounted for approximately 400 Irish Catholics who were previously “Unknown” and lost to time. We have plans to utilize ground penetrating radar to locate additional stones and graves as well which we hope to have underway in the next month. The headstones we have unearthed are in pristine condition – almost all contain the name of the individuals in the grave and also the parish from which they hailed from and county information which is so valuable to anyone searching their Irish ancestry. I will try to send you a link to the second article which also was published with some fine photos documenting the headstones that were uncovered. We are in the process of transcribing and photographing and compiling and index of individual names. My very best, Annie Castelnovo-McMullen (Bramasole@cox.net)

    • Sarah Boyle says:

      Thank you Annie, for undertaking this project, so much information coming on line on the plight of our ancestors who thought they were coming to the “New World” for a better life, and the opposite was happening. I will look forward to seeing your updates and just sorry I am too far away to help. Sarah

      • Annie McMullen says:

        Thank you so much Sarah for your interest in the article! A follow up article was published in the Waltham Tribune after our first work weekend during which we successfully unearthed 161 headstones of Irish immigrants. We are now in the process of having the area scanned with ground penetrating radar and 3-D Scanning which will allow us to determine the number of burials and also locate additional headstones that are buried deeper. This will be performed on October 31st, 2015 and will be an all day affair. The headstones that we have unearthed are all in very good condition and many document both the parish and county that the individual(s) came from. The majority of the individuals came to the States during the famine years with deaths ranging between the mid 1840’s and 1913. A report filed with the town in 1947 stated that 1395 bodies were removed from the Church Street Cemetery and reburied at Calvary. The Waltham Tribune will also carry an article after the ground scanning is performed on the 31st. We have also set up a Go Fund Me site to help raise the funds for the scanning and you might want to follow the progress and my updates on this as well.

        https://www.gofundme.com/churchstheadstones

        Thank you for all your interest in this project. We are very glad to be bringing these long lost individuals back into the light and making their names known.

        Gratefully, Annie & Bill

  2. John Murphy says:

    Wonderful work. Thank you for myself and I’m sure the many who hail from the area with ancestors from Ireland. I’m from Cambridge and fortunately I know the grave sites of my Murphy, Sullivan, Mulcahy, Costello grandparents that came from Galway and Cork.

    • Annie McMullen says:

      Thank you so much John for your interest in the article! A follow up article was published in the Waltham Tribune after our first work weekend during which we successfully unearthed 161 headstones of Irish immigrants. We are now in the process of having the area scanned with ground penetrating radar and 3-D Scanning which will allow us to determine the number of burials and also locate additional headstones that are buried deeper. This will be performed on October 31st, 2015 and will be an all day affair. Interestingly, some of the stones that we did unearth contained the surnames of Costello, Sullivan, Murphy and Mulcahy so I am wondering if any of your ancestors might have been buried in the Irish Catholic Church Street cemetery in Waltham. Just for your interest, the church street cemetery was one of the very few in the Boston and Greater Boston area that was primarily Irish Catholic. Many of the individuals who were buried there resided in Cambridge, Boston and other towns surrounding Boston thus it is quite possible that one of your ancestors might have been buried there. the Waltham Tribune carried the follow up article regarding unearthing the headstones and will also carry an article after the ground scanning is performed on the 31st. We have also set up a Go Fund Me site to help raise the funds for the scanning and you might want to follow the progress on this as well.

      https://www.gofundme.com/churchstheadstones

      Thank you so much for your interest. This project has been a long time coming and in the planning.
      Our very best, Annie & Bill

  3. Nicola Jennings says:

    Looking forward to the complete listing of names.

  4. Ehren says:

    I got some real bad news for you people. Unless those folks were buried in concrete or brass coffins, there would be nothing left to move BUT the headstones. 150 years passing don’t go too well on wood buried in the ground. A handful of brass coffin handles and a few teeth, perhaps, is all you will probable find after that much time. .

    • Annie McMullen says:

      HI Ehren: The individuals who were moved in 1947 were indeed buried in wooden coffins many of which were intact (per eye witness accounts and also one of the men involved in moving the bodies during the summer of 1947). The names of individuals were still noted on the original coffins, however, the decision was made to have smaller coffins built and the bones from each grave placed within the newly constructed coffins. The gentleman who worked on actually removing the bones from the original coffins stated that there were, indeed, many bones still in very good condition at the time of the move. Another woman whom we met this weekend also witnessed the removal of the bones from the original coffins and graves (some coffins had deteriorated but not to that extent). The great majority of the individuals died between 1850 and 1922 (last burial being in 1922) – the removal of the bodies was performed during the summer of 1947. annie (we are the ones spearheading this project and have talked to several eye witnesses to the 1947 work as well as to a worker who was directly involved) News articles from the summer of 1947 also state that the original coffins were intact and bones were transferred to the newly constructed coffins.

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