Holyoke historian’s cemetery talk explores life and death in bygone days

  • This memorial marker in Precious Blood Cemetery in South Hadley Falls recalls the May 27, 1875, fire at Precious Blood Church in Holyoke. Many of the more than 70 worshippers who died in the blaze are buried in this cemetery. STEPHEN FAY

  • This memorial marker in Precious Blood Cemetery in South Hadley Falls recalls the May 27, 1875, fire at Precious Blood Church in Holyoke. Many of the more than 70 worshippers who died in the blaze are buried in this cemetery. STEPHEN FAY

  • Milo Smith's marker at Smith's Ferry Cemetery. Smith was a state congressman from Northampton for 25 years and died in 1884. Smith's marker is one that was restored with community preservation money in 2019. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bob Comeau at Milo Smith's marker. Smith was a state congressman from Northampton for 25 years and died in 1884. Smith is buried in the Smith's Ferry Cemetery and his marker is one that was restored with community preservation money in 2019. Comeau points out the line where the marker was put back together. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bob Comeau talks about the cemetery marker for Richard F. Underwood who died in 1918 and is buried with his family at the Smith's Ferry Cemetery in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bob Comeau talks about the cemetery marker for Richard F. Underwood who died in 1918 and is buried with his family at the Smith's Ferry Cemetery in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bob Comeau stands at Milo Smith's marker. Smith was a state congressman from Northampton for 25 years and died in 1884. Smith is buried in the Smith's Ferry Cemetery and his marker was one that was fixed with community preservation money in 2019. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

For the Gazette
Published: 2/14/2020 9:17:35 AM
Modified: 2/14/2020 9:17:22 AM

HOLYOKE — In the summer of 1868, while grading Mosher Street on the flats behind Depot Hill, a work crew unearthed an unsettling find: skeletons. Dozens of them.

Amherst College archeologist Edward Hitchcock was summoned to the scene. This area, in what was later to become Holyoke, with its excellent salmon fishing and rich soil, was a very desirable location for Native Americans. Hitchcock determined that the workers had dug into a Native American burial ground. The final count was 59 adults, buried in a seated position in the red clay. 

So began local historian Robert Comeau’s 90-minute presentation last Saturday on the burial grounds of this city and neighboring communities. Comeau’s slide-illustrated talk at the Holyoke Public Library’s attracted an attentive audience of about 50 people. Comeau shared the stories and backstories of many of the individuals and families laid to rest in the area’s cemeteries and churchyards,

“You can tell a lot about family structure” by studying burial sites, Comeau said after his talk. Families maintained “small cemeteries very close to where they lived.”

Houses of worship followed suit. Cemeteries were established near churches so that members of the congregation could visit the graves of loved ones.

“They wanted to see them at least once a week,” Comeau said.

This is particularly the case with the Rev. Jeremiah O’Callaghan, the missionary priest who helped establish St. Jerome’s Church. After his death in 1861, he was buried in front of the church.

Among the histories Comeau shared was that of Bushman Fuller, born in 1745. He was the slave of Nathaniel Ely Sr. of Springfield. Fuller managed to buy his freedom as well as the freedom of his wife, Flora, who had been a slave of the Rev. Joseph Perry of Windsor, Connecticut. Both are buried at the Elmwood Cemetery (the former Baptist Cemetery) on Northampton Street.

A monument at Precious Blood Cemetery in South Hadley Falls (across from the Big Y World Class Market) recalls an immense tragedy and illustrates the tradition of churches serving specific nationalities. Precious Blood Church, formerly on Cabot Street in Holyoke, burned on May 27, 1875, killing more than 70 communicants who had been celebrating the Feast of Corpus Christi. “It was incredible,” Comeau said. Of the 70 who died, 63 had been born in Quebec.

Most of the fire victims were buried at Precious Blood Cemetery. The original tragedy was exacerbated by a fire at the cemetery in 1913. On May 3 of that year, “a worker set down his cigarette,” Comeau said, “igniting the dry grass.” The flames consumed 300 wooden crosses with the result that traces of individual burial sites were eradicated. Subsequent grave diggers “kept hitting coffins” in one section of the cemetery.

Comeau’s presentation, sponsored by the Holyoke Preservation Trust, also included narratives about the graves of soldiers (Civil War, World War I, Spanish-American War), captains of industry (paper mill magnates James and John Newton) and the Irish victims of the cholera epidemic of 1849. Among the poignant histories was that of the Rev. Justin Perkins of Holyoke (1805-1869), a Presbyterian missionary who moved with his wife and family to Persia (Iran) in 1833. Six of their seven children died in Persia. Perkins is buried in Holyoke’s Rock Valley Cemetery off Route 202.

Over the years, one’s religion and nationality had a good deal to do with where one might be laid to rest, Comeau observed. He distributed a list that noted, in part, the following: St. Jerome’s Cemetery in Holyoke was the burial ground for Irish Catholics. Quebec Catholics were buried at Precious Blood Cemetery in South Hadley Falls. The Polish Catholic community was served by Notre Dame and Mater Dolorosa cemeteries in South Hadley. Burial grounds for the Jewish community were the Sons of Zion Cemetery and the Rodphey Sholom Cemetery, both in Chicopee. Protestants were laid to rest in Forestdale, Elmwood, Smith’s Ferry and Rock Valley cemeteries, among others.

Comeau, who leads the popular canal tour in Holyoke each year, asks those who attend his free presentations to support a local nonprofit organization. This year, he is advocating for the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Holyoke.




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