Get our newsletters
Bridget Wingert: Happy to Be Here

Happy to Be Here: Uncovering graves in the 21st century

Posted

From East State Street in Doylestown, you can see St. Mary’s Cemetery tucked in next to Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church and across from the parish school. It’s a small cemetery, but like cemeteries large and small around the world, it’s crammed with local history.
The church began as a mission for itinerant priests in 1834. It was officially founded in 1850 as St. Mary’s Parish. Bishop (now Saint) John Neuman broke ground for the first church in 1855. The first burial was in 1856 but it was more than 20 years before the cemetery was laid out in measured lots under direction of Father Stommel, the pastor. In 1956, a land donation by the Rufe family expanded the occupancy by 492 graves.
The cemetery’s been closed to new grave-seekers for years, “full,” is the answer to people who ask if they can bury a family member there. All of the lots have been sold but they may not be full and not all are marked. In 165 years, the cemetery has gone through significant upheavals when records could not be precise – the Civil War for one, and the Spanish flu of 1918. A section of the cemetery, “Holy Innocents,” is set aside for hundreds of children and babies who died in that flu epidemic.
The absence of complete records is one of the reasons the church had a Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) study done this fall. When the study is complete, the church may not know the names of all of the people buried in its cemetery but it will have a map showing what graves are occupied.
Benton Smith of Sentry Mapping spent a couple of days in Doylestown surveying the entire area of St. Mary’s Cemetery. Smith is based in Oxford, Miss., and he has a partner, James Trowbridge, based in Columbus, Ohio. The team, which also includes field assistance, travels mostly in mainland United States. Current commitments exist in Texas, North Dakota and Alabama.
Smith’s radar system, according to the Sentry Mapping website, sends signals into the earth and records the reflections of those signals. “These signal reflections show as a hyperbola on the system’s screen and will pinpoint underground anomalies allowing our technicians to mark their exact locations. This process creates a subsurface map of the area while causing no soil disturbance or any other damage to the site.”
“We use GPR to mark a physical location,” Smith said in a phone interview last week. “We take a picture and transcribe the name.” Military information is color coded, according to the conflict. When all the data is organized, he produces a survey grade map, showing the cemetery as it actually appears in 2021. The map has a grid – as in state highway maps – with location information across the top and bottom.
Smith already had a business background in geophysical services when he ventured into the specialized field of locating underground graves, pipes, electrical lines and whatever needs to be found. He was trained by an archaeologist in the GPR system.

The Rev. Matthew Guckin, said the reason for the survey was more than needing a map. “In the Catholic tradition of reverence for the dead, we recognized that we were not paying enough attention to St.Mary’s Cemetery. It was a stressed cemetery.”
Parishioners were volunteering their time to help maintain the historic grounds. No too long ago, it was noticed that someone had righted an overturned tombstone.
“We started looking around, wondering where all the graves were supposed to be,” Father Guckin said. And people in these days of genealogical investigations were looking for answers as they searched for ancestors.
Erica Rafferty, parish secretary and manager of the cemetery, took on the cemetery restoration project. She pored through records at the Mercer Museum, explored the cloud online to “find out everything about everybody.”
Rafferty has monitored the work of Sentry Mapping and she hired a drone to take an aerial shot of the cemetery and parish land from 400 feet above. “It’s been a fascinating journey,” she said.
The view today includes 160 orange flags marking graves that were not known. It will be several weeks before the church sees the map showing the grid and graves that may or may not be filled.
The cemetery gets many visitors, Father Guckin said, people wondering “where is my great-grandfather buried” and some just looking around.
St. Mary’s is a favorite walking route for residents of downtown Doylestown. It’s still the peaceful place it has been, only more so.


X