It Took a Village

It Took a Village

A Connecticut community pitches in to rescue an endangered cemetery.

Many of the headstones in St. Augustine Cemetery (above) in Bridgeport, Conn., reflect the city’s Irish heritage. Some provide birthplaces of the deceased (right).

Not much grabs family historians’ attention like a front-page article in the local newspaper about a neglected cemetery. On a Sunday morning last October in southwestern Connecticut, the Connecticut Post featured an old, inactive Catholic cemetery situated in a tough inner-city Bridgeport neighborhood. Once a worldwide source of manufacturing and commerce, Connecticut’s largest city now shares the challenges of other US urban centers — crime, blight, drugs, unemployment and redevelopment.

St. Augustine Cemetery, a 6-acre site opened in the 1860s and nearly filled by the 1890s, sits in the heart of Bridgeport. Few neighbors today have any connection to those interred at the cemetery. Families have moved away, leaving many grave sites unattended for more than a century.

The Post’s reports of drug dealing, trash dumping and neglect in St. Augustine struck a nerve. Ray Capo, who manages the cemetery for the Catholic diocese, said in a letter to the editor that caretakers couldn’t keep up with vandals who repeatedly broke in.

St. Augustine dominated discussion at local club meetings and online. Members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Gaelic-American Club were among those who contacted Capo offering help.

Work commenced almost immediately to research, document, photograph and preserve this nearly forgotten graveyard and those buried in it. “This needed to be done, and it has been fantastic to see the response from the community,” says volunteer Bill Allen, a fourth-generation descendant of St. Augustine “resident” James Devitt, interred in 1868.

In two months, using maps, a 1934 Works Progress Administration survey and keen eyes, volunteers discovered nearly 300 markers buried under sod. The stones paint a portrait of early Bridgeport and its mostly Irish Catholic immigrants who fled the famine that touched nearly every mid-1800s Irish family. Other stones mark graves of Italians, Russians and Slovaks. Counties and parishes of origin are inscribed on more than three-quarters of the markers.

St. Augustine’s restoration is the most recent chapter of a long and interesting Early maps and land records reveal famous showman P.T. Barnum owned much of East Bridgeport. The cemetery site was located on the western banks of Pembroke Lake — a long-forgotten body of water drained during development in the early 1900s.

In 1890, after years of rumors in Bridgeport, the local Board of Health issued a warning to church officials for alleged violations of statutes outlining proper burial practices. Less than a year later, the cemetery was the scene of shocking late-night vandalism. The May 2 New York Times reported a gang of “scoundrels” toppled or defaced 50 stones and tore down fencing.

Modern volunteers’ biggest surprise? In the mid-1950s, church officials ordered stones laid flat over the graves to preve further damage. “It was a wonderful feeling to unearth these stones and discover their messages,” Allen says. “Many were beautifully carved … Historically, each is a treasure to be preserved with dignity.”

He and others have made a list of close to 1,000 burials, including more than 70 Civil War veterans, and are researching the cemetery’s residents. See more details and photographs at <www.lynchonline.com>.

The cemetery remains accessible to the public, albeit with a repaired fence and new gate. Having shown St, Augustine and its residents aren’t forgotten, the Bridgeport community hopes others will treat it with new respect.

From the May 2008 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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