Hallowed Ground in Jersey CityPosted: July 2, 2014
I never pass a cemetery without a second look, or a third, or even pulling over to take a fourth.
So when a chance came to tour two landmark Catholic cemeteries in Jersey City, I put on my sturdiest, ugliest walking shoes and met up on a lovely June Saturday morning with other members of the Hudson County Genealogical and Historical Society. On the agenda: an in-depth look at St. Peter’s Cemetery, on Tonnelle Avenue, and sprawling, gorgeous Holy Name on West Side Avenue, final home to many prominent (and in some cases infamous) figures from Jersey City’s past.
We carpooled to St. Peter’s, a good thing because St. Peter’s has to be one of the trickiest cemeteries to access anywhere. This might sound cheeky to those who must hack their way to ancestors in overgrown rural burying grounds, but there are other hazards in life besides brambles, and Tonnelle Avenue (a k a U.S. Highways 1 and 9) is one of them.
St. Peter’s big, elegant iron gates butt right up against this busy ribbon of concrete, so you pull into a small, gravelly road that hugs one side of the cemetery, looks like a factory driveway, and is incredibly easy to miss (we didn’t; the driver who gave me a ride held a Ph.D. in Jersey City driving). If you miss it, just turn up the music in your car and settle in for another twenty minutes or so of circling round Jersey City, depending upon traffic and whatever fantasies your GPS dreams up – Hudson County tends to frazzle GPS software.
So don’t miss that road.
Also: don’t drop by St. Peter’s until you have checked that somebody can open the gates for you. It’s not a just-dropping-by kind of place, unfortunately.
But once you’re in, you are standing in a strangely peaceful, green oasis in the heart of a heavily industrialized area – the oldest Catholic cemetery in the Archdiocese of Newark (which includes Hudson County). St. Peter’s was founded in 1849, reflecting a swell of Irish, German and Polish immigration to Jersey City. Urban growth has long since engulfed St. Peter’s, and there hasn’t been a new plot sold there since at least the mid-1900s (probably earlier, according to the HCG&HS handout), but if their family holds a plot, a person can still be buried there, which apparently has happened as recently as 2011.
The march of time hasn’t always been kind to St. Peter’s. The grounds are clearly well cared for, but there are many broken or missing markers. With burials and visitors so infrequent these days, the vandals unfortunately have had their way over time. Especially for earlier burials it can be very tough figuring out where a specific grave might be without a marker, and in the older part of the cemetery few markers survive. According to our handout about 16,000 people are buried on the five acres that comprise St. Peter’s.
St. Peter’s remains a hauntingly beautiful place, where the vivid craftsmanship of monument makers and ironworkers still defies time, elements and scoundrels. A thick screen of foliage hides the railroad tracks that snake by the cemetery, so the occasional blast of a train whistle comes as a surprise while you’re browsing. It is also surprising to look up and see smokestacks piercing the sky in the distance, but that’s city cemetery life for you.
On to Holy Name, established in 1864.
We had an excellent meet-up point: the mausoleum containing the earthly remains of Frank Hague (1876-1956), who for nearly thirty years was the mayor of Jersey City and is still a synonym for big-city boss politics. He probably polished off this topic, honestly. I once worked for a Chicago tabloid where memories of Richard J. Daley (aka Richie Sr.) still loomed large, so I’ve heard a lot of stories about bosses and grudges. But the way people can talk about Hague even now makes other political grudges sound a bit quaint.
Hague’s surprisingly utilitarian-looking mausoleum at Holy Name sits in solitary state in the middle of a roundabout where you can make a U-turn if you get lost (words one can picture being used by Frank Hague to a person who asked for directions without offering a kickback).
With 65 acres and more than 265,000 burials, Holy Name is a sovereign territory where many of Jersey City’s biggest bigwigs eventually ended up, being only mortal after all. Some of their graves are graced with monuments of extraordinary flair (like the one on the family plot of Dennis “Denny” McLaughlin, a predecessor and mentor of Hague’s). Many were carved by an Irish immigrant, Martin Adams, who in 1916 decided to build a monument to himself while he was still around to appreciate it. It’s 65 feet tall and constructed from granite salvaged during the demolition of the Astor mansion in Manhattan.
Besides the pols, Holy Name contains plots dedicated to members of religious orders, plots dedicated to veterans of the armed services, and a green potters’ field that on this summer afternoon was dotted with occasional bouquets of flowers.
And I had one extra stop to make: I have family buried here. I knew the plot and section and row, but as I looked around the rolling expanses of restful repose, I wondered if I would locate anything before sunset. Or whether the headstone would still be there, oh dear. The section where the grave was supposed to be was a very big section. Of course, what section isn’t, in a cemetery like this? I told myself not to be a baby and plunged in. And after about five minutes of searching, there it was. Lucky me, I’d plunged into just the right side of the section.
So I got my picture of the marker for Rose (Connors) Brant, who moved to Jersey City with her family from Watervliet, N.Y., just a little while before her sister, my great-grandmother Catherine (Connors) Haigney, made a similar migration to Brooklyn in 1900 with her family. Finding this little bit of personal history was a nice way to top off an interesting trip into Jersey City’s past.
• Holy Name Cemetery: 823 West Side Avenue, Jersey City, NJ 07306. Cemetery Office: 888-621-0337 / 201-433-0342. Mausoleum Office: 888-621-0337 / 201-395-0904. Note that Holy Name’s staff also oversees St. Peter’s Cemetery.
• The Archdiocese of Newark has a search engine for burials in nine cemeteries, including Holy Name. This database does not include St. Peter’s.
• Some St. Peter’s data is included on this list of older burial lists and daybooks available on LDS microfilm (compiled by the Special Collections division of Seton Hall University’s library).
• This list contains call numbers for LDS film pertaining to many Jersey City cemeteries, including St. Peter’s and Holy Name.