Get our newsletters

By the Way: Searching for ancestors


On a gorgeous autumn afternoon during a cemetery walk, Philip McCarty of Norristown and Donald Moran of Upper Black Eddy, who had not met before, discovered they were fourth cousins, descendants of Nicholas Buck, a Revolutionary War soldier.

That’s the kind of thing that can happen when one is searching for ancestors, especially in a cemetery so packed with history.

The two men were among the three dozen or so people gathered to tour the earliest section of the cemetery at Old St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church in Haycock Township.

Many, like Philip McCarty, are direct descendants of the founding McCarty family, or the Kohls, the Bucks (of the village of Bucksville) or the Haneys (in all its spellings) and many more early 18th-century pioneers who helped tame the wilderness that was then Upper Bucks.

The McCartys appeared on the scene the same year the Walking Purchase occurred and the Kohls soon after.

The informal program was organized by Rosanne McCarty, adopted daughter of the clan that donated the acre of land the original church was built on in 1798.

“We’re probably all related,” she told those assembled in the old church. One by one, many of them spoke of relatives buried in the cemetery, of marriages and other sacraments received in the church where the original bell tolled for funerals. It still has to be pulled with a rope.

After years of religious strife, the McCartys had fled their home in Ireland’s County Cork, rather than sign an oath of allegiance to the Crown, according to Dr. James McHugh who kicked off the tour with a history of the church in what he called “the great forest.”

McHugh, Rosanne said, has done a tremendous amount of research as well as sheer physical labor restoring and protecting tombstones in the 18th-century section of the cemetery.

Edward McCarty, husband of Catherine, purchased acreage along Haycock Run from the sons of William Penn in 1737, according to McHugh.

Before a church was built, Catholics had gathered at the home of the second generation McCartys, Nicholas and Albertina. They had built a frontier home on Church Lane with a separate large room where Catholics could gather for Mass whenever a horseback riding circuit priest arrived to marry, baptize or pray for those who had died since his last visit.

The little parish stood firm in a larger patch of land in the woods settled primarily by Germans, also fleeing religious persecution. It was the first Catholic church in Bucks County. Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Doylestown is just one of its many spin-offs.

A second church replaced the original which was destroyed by fire in 1855 and a third church constructed in 2003, now stands on Durham Road in Nockamixon Township. It serves seven townships.

Old St. John’s is closed now with the exception of Thursdays when Mass is said at 9 a.m. and for the occasional wedding.

McHugh said the first person buried in the cemetery was Mary Maguin of Tinicum Township who died in 1742, but the first marked grave in the cemetery is that of Unity Casey McCarty, who died in 1745. Born in County Cork in 1675, she was clan matriarch and mother of the pioneering Edward and Thomas.

Burials still take place at the cemetery, which, approaching its third century, is the final resting place for more than 1,000. It is a peaceful, touching scene in the shadow of Haycock Mountain with American flags fluttering above veterans graves.

Rosanne said, “At least one veteran of each of America’s wars in buried here.” Thomas McCarty, of the family’s third generation, was one of General Washington’s honor guards. Among the veterans’ graves is that of an unknown female who served in World War II, according to Rosanne.

The Baptism of Albertina Kohl on Aug. 23, 1741, was not only the first performed at St. John’s, it was also the first recorded Catholic Baptism in all of the 13 colonies.

That’s just a taste of the history buried in Upper Bucks, and more of it is just being revealed now as more families are seeking their roots.

Join our readers whose generous donations are making it possible for you to read our news coverage. Help keep local journalism alive and our community strong. Donate today.