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The long-forgotten souls

Church plans monument to cemetery's unknown dead

The ghoulish dig in the backyard of a demolished Roxbury church is slowly revealing some of the long-buried secrets of its anonymous occupants.

Arch eologists have now uncovered, in addition to the remains of at least 600 nameless souls, several broken headstones, pieces of wooden coffins, a vial, some coins, a wedding band, a rosary, and a faded white cross.

Catholic Church leaders, eager to do right by the memory of the long-forgotten, are commissioning a stone monument to the unknown parishioners of St. Joseph Catholic Church, topped, perhaps, by the bell that once rang proudly from atop the landmark church. The deteriorating St. Joseph's was demolished last year.

The monument will be in Waltham, where on most days now a driver delivers small cardboard boxes of human remains for reinterment in concrete grave boxes. The Roxbury site, along Regent and Circuit streets, is being cleared to make way for City on a Hill Charter Public School , which purchased the property unaware that several feet under the topsoil was a massive gravesite.

Archdiocesan archivists have discovered a list of people once buried in the cemetery, but the document has only about 500 names, far too few to explain perhaps as many as 800 shafts, some of which contain the remains of multiple individuals. And there is no explanation for why some of the shafts are empty; church officials say they believe that some of the bodies were relocated previously, but it is not clear where.

Since the dig began, three people have called to say that their ancestors might be there; none of the names matched, and the situation appears to have been further confused by the fact that there were two St. Joseph's cemeteries in Boston, one in Roxbury and the other in West Roxbury. The archival burial list, which does not include a map matching names to individual shafts, suggests that many of those interred at the St. Joseph's in Roxbury, which had a functioning cemetery in the 1850s and 1860s, were immigrants from Ireland's County Donegal .

``It's strange -- it's a mystery," said the Rev. Walter J. Waldron , the last pastor of St. Joseph 's , who out of a combination of duty and fascination stops by the dig most days to check its progress. ``Why are there more bones? What happened to the grave markers, if they used grave markers? I've heard there was a wrought-iron fence, and where did that go?"

Waldron and church officials are trying to patch together a rough history of the cemetery, which they anticipate posting on the Catholic cemeteries web site. They have devoted a portion of Calvary Cemetery in Waltham to the lost souls of St. Joseph's, and plan a carefully landscaped site, along with a religious recommittal service, when the reburials are completed. The church is hoping to use a large stone found on the Roxbury site as a base and to incorporate into the monument other found elements, including the white cross. Personal effects, such as the wedding ring, are being reburied with the remains with which they are found.

``We wanted to be as respectful as possible to the deceased, and we're trying to make it as aesthetically pleasing as we can," said Robert Visconti, executive director of the Catholic Cemetery Association of the Archdiocese of Boston Inc . ``People have called looking. People are very interested."

Waldron said he did not want the arch eologists to do any testing on the bones; he does not want them disturbed.

``These people were buried there, and should be reburied and not used, even for another good purpose," he said.

The Roxbury cemetery apparently was used from 1850 to 1868, Waldron said. At some point, it disappeared from local maps, and over the next century, several feet of soil were added. By the time Waldron became pastor, in 1988, there were no visible markers for the hundreds of people who were buried in the yard. Waldron, who has been the pastor of St. Patrick Church in Roxbury since St. Joseph's was closed by the archdiocese in 2002, said old-timers talked of a cemetery there, but the general understanding was that all of the bodies had long since been relocated. He said the yard was used for church picnics and as a playground.

Deborah C. Cox, who is overseeing the moving of the cemetery as president of The Public Archaeology Laboratory Inc. in Pawtucket, R.I., said she believes about 600 people were buried at the site, and the excavation will be completed in three weeks, weather permitting. Waldron said he believes the number will be as high as 800, saying the arch eologists keep finding shafts in unexpected locations, such as by a garage.

As the remains are moved, the arch eologists are making a map showing where they were found. The remains are being tracked as they are reinterred in Waltham, in case anyone finds a map of the original cemetery.

``It's far more extensive than I ever imagined," Waldron said.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

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