The 'Irish Cemetery' behind St. Francis de Sales

Many Irish children whose families fled the famine are buried in this sad and storied graveyard.

Mystery and loneliness have surrounded the cemetery behind St. Francis de Sales Church. For years there were locks on the gates. No one seemed to know who was buried there. No one ever seemed to visit the dead.

There are still locks on the gates, but now you can knock on the rectory door next to the cemetery and someone will let you into the ground. Considerable research by the Children of the Famine Memorial Committee has diminished the mystery and revealed that there are at least 9,000 "souls" buried in the cemetery. Hundreds of those buried there between 1845 and 1850 were children of the Irish potato famine. At the burial ground’s entrance there is now a memorial Celtic Cross dedicated to the children. Research to identify the names of all those interred continues.

This “Irish Cemetery,” as it has been called, is one of the oldest Catholic graveyards in New England.

The Children of the Famine Memorial booklet gives us an insightful history. In January of 1830 Bishop Benedict Fenwick, the second Bishop of Boston, purchased three acres of land from the Hunnewell family of Charlestown. He intended to use the land for a Catholic burial ground. St. Augustine’s in Boston, the first Catholic cemetery in New England, which opened in 1818, was almost full. 

To keep Catholics from interring their dead in Protestant Charlestown, Charlestown selectmen united against Bishop Fenwick and in May 1832, passed a series of regulations which would not allow bodies into Charlestown without the selectmen’s written permission.

On May 19, Fenwick petitioned the selectmen for permission to inter two children from Boston: Florence Driscoll who was three-years-old and James Kinsley who was three months. The selectmen declined Bishop Fenwick’s request. Disregarding their ruling Bishop Fenwick ordered Mr. Murray, the sexton, to go ahead with the funeral of the two children. Catholic burials continued through the rest of the month.

In the middle of June the selectmen brought suit against Murray and Bishop Fenwick; the lower court ruled in the Fenwick’s favor. The selectmen then appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Court and in October of 1834 the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled for Bishop Fenwick. He was now free to use the burial ground for Catholic burial.

Fenwick had a small caretaker’s house built in front of the graveyard to help deter threats that were being made to the sacred ground. Some say that the burning of the Ursuline Convent at Charlestown’s Neck was in retaliation against Bishop Fenwick and the Catholics who were gaining a foothold in Charlestown.

Records show that a large number of Irish children who immigrated during the famine died in Charlestown and were buried on the side of Bunker Hill. Charlestown Vital Records, compiled and edited by Roger D. Joslyn, indicate the deaths of at least 41 Irish children. Bridget Noonan, age 1, died of cholera, as did Michael Sullivan who was 11 months old. Margaret Kenney, Mary Ryne and James Walsh all died of typhus fever. Daniel Corson, Ellen Dean and Denis Phelan died of scarlet fever. Others died of consumption, lung fever, dropsy and dysentery.

Hundreds of deaths went unreported. At the time it was the heartbreaking practice for destitute parents to leave the corpses of their children on the stairs leading up to the cemetery in hope that the sexton would bury them. Records show that this practice continued up to the beginning of the Civil War.

Charlestown residents share a debt of gratitude to the Charlestown Historical Society and to the Parish of St. Francis de Sales for their successful efforts in helping us remember the Irish children. In September 2009, after a long, arduous campaign to raise the money and do the tedious and laborious research, an 8-foot high traditional Celtic Cross with icons associated with the Irish immigrant experience was placed at the entrance to the cemetery. An adjoining dedication stone reads in part: Dedicated to the sacrifice and courage of the children of the famine, who perished on the very threshold of the dream. May God grant them life eternal.

  • Where is it?
    The graveyard is behind St Francis de Sales Church. The Celtic Memorial is at the entrance of the graveyard.
  • When was it designated?
    The graveyard was designated in 1832. The Celtic Cross was dedicated in September 2009.
  • Who built it? 
    The land for the graveyard belonged to a Charlestown family. Deveney & White Monuments consulted on the final design and selection of stone materials for the memorial.
  • What was it built for and who was the first deceased buried there? It was designated as a Catholic burial ground; two young children were the first deceased buried there.
  • Why was it built?
    There was no Catholic burial ground in Charlestown.
  • How was it built?
    On a hill slope overlooking the Mystic River
  • What are the future plans for the burial ground?
    Holy Cross Cemetery in Malden is the guardian of the burial ground’s records and caretaker of the grounds. The last person to be buried there was in the 1940s. Researchers hope to identify all those who are buried there.

Information for this article was compiled from the following sources:
www.stfrancisdesalescharlestown.com; Children of the Famine Memorial Booklet; http://www.thebostonpilot.com/article.asp?ID=10847; http://www.yelp.com/topic/charlestown-mysterious-cemetery-in-charlestown---not-a-morbid-question; and interview.

Nancy Hannan April 13, 2011 at 03:03 PM
Haunting details of a story long overdue. We townies are grateful to the NHS for thier tenacious uncovering of such a tragedy and I am personally grateful to this author for revealing the details in This Address article.
naomi kooker May 23, 2011 at 09:36 PM
Very moving article that gives voice to such a quiet, forgotten place -- and the people and children buried within. Well, done, Helen.
Helen O'Neil August 23, 2012 at 09:26 PM
This came via e-mail: "The records show that my great-great-great grandmother Hannah Bridgeo Moakler was buried here in November 1834. She died on November 26th. The undertaker was Murray, I believe. Is there any record of her burial in that cemetery. I just finished reading the article "The Irish Cemetery behind St. Francis de Sales". I would alike to visit that cemetery when I get to Boston. I am from Nebraska."
John R. Murphy August 23, 2012 at 11:18 PM
Much of Helen's article seems to come directly from the "Children of the Famine Memorial" booklet on the history of the Bunker Hill Catholic Cemetery", dated September 13, 2009.
Helen O'Neil August 24, 2012 at 12:44 AM
Hi, John, it definitely does. That booklet was an important resource.


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