"Even in death, you have the opportunity to be a part of history."
So says Kelly Grimaldi, historian for Albany Diocesan Cemeteries and author of a new coffee table book, "These Sacred Grounds: Celebrating 150 Years of St. Agnes Cemetery."
The 114-acre burial ground in Menands is marking its sesquicentennial this year. On Sept. 17, 2-5 p.m., there will be a cocktail party with a blessing by Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger and trolley tours of the cemetery grounds.
Ms. Grimaldi and Albany Diocesan Cemeteries director Rick Touchette spoke with The Evangelist about St. Agnes Cemetery's evolution from the Victorian era to modern times.
"The 150th anniversary is a pretty significant milestone," Ms. Grimaldi remarked. "For any business to be a viable part of the community for 150 years is significant."
Back in 1867, there was certainly a need for a Catholic cemetery in the Capital District. Many families buried their dead on their own property, but church lots and a municipal cemetery in what is now Albany's Washington Park were filling up. More and more immigrants were also pouring into Albany, squeezing out open spaces for cemeteries.
Non-denominational Albany Rural Cemetery opened in the mid-19th century, but it was "not considered appropriate grounds for Catholic burials," Ms. Grimaldi writes in "These Sacred Grounds."
Place to rest
When St. Agnes Cemetery was created, it provided a 50-acre, park-like setting where Catholics of all economic backgrounds could be laid to rest. Fields, hills and winding pathways were dotted with trees like majestic copper beeches.
The new cemetery was also a place for families to make a statement. People in Victorian times believed that one's headstone needed to be as grand as possible.
"It was so important to mark the grave with a stone -- the best you could afford," Ms. Grimaldi said. For many families of that era, she noted, the only record of a loved one's existence was the carving on a headstone.
As such, St. Agnes Cemetery became a repository for scores of towering obelisks, large gravestones, mausoleums and religious statues.
Albany attorney Peter Cagger, who sold the land for the cemetery and was the first president of its board of trustees, is buried atop the "Founder's Hill" section. His grave is marked with a flight of stone steps leading to an obelisk topped with a cross.
Ironically, Cagger was killed in an accident only a month after choosing his own gravesite. Under the leadership of his successor and brother-in-law, William Cassidy, there followed a decade of selling nearly every burial plot in the cemetery and adding more land.
Records show that, between 1867 and 1885, nearly 14,000 people were interred in St. Agnes Cemetery. To purchase a gravesite, they had paid 39 cents per square foot.
"These Sacred Grounds" is less a book about St. Agnes Cemetery itself than a collection of biographies of those laid to rest there. Some were famous: Martin Glynn, New York's first Irish Catholic governor; Michael Nolan, who in 1878 became the first Catholic mayor of Albany; John Heenan, the first American to win a heavyweight championship belt; actor and director Robert Vignola; and actress Mary Nash, best known for a co-starring role in the 1937 film "Heidi."
Businessman Anthony Brady became one of the wealthiest men in the world in the late 1800s. "He was one of the first businessmen to capitalize on the invention of electricity, having locked in a contract in 1881 to light the streets of Albany," Ms. Grimaldi writes in the book.
Brady's name may also be familiar because he founded the Brady Maternity Hospital in Albany, now home to the Pastoral Center where diocesan offices are located. When he died in 1913, he was entombed at St. Agnes Cemetery in a massive, Greek Parthenon-style mausoleum that's worth about $4 million today.
But Ms. Grimaldi is drawn more to the stories of people whose lives and deaths may have faded into history were they not memorialized at St. Agnes. In addition to Albany's prominent citizens, she said, "the poor and voiceless, the marginalized, are buried here."
A tragic example is that of the orphans of St. Joseph's Industrial School in Albany. When 14 girls from the school went into Fernwood Pond on a hot summer day in 1903, watched over by Sisters of Charity, several girls fell off a raft into a 17-foot-deep part of the pond. None could swim and rescue efforts failed.
Sixteen-year-old Mary Breen, 19-year-old Grace Burns and 20-year-old Mary O'Brien drowned. They lay in unmarked graves for 107 years before an anonymous donor paid for a headstone. In 2010, then-Bishop Howard J. Hubbard led a ceremony to bless the newly-installed stone.
Burials at St. Agnes Cemetery reflect the evolution of history. The grounds are the resting place for the victims of an 1894 fire that razed Albany's Delavan House hotel and the collapse of Myers Department Store in 1905 due to poor construction.
Those stories "speak to a time when there were no building codes, no safety regulations," Ms. Grimaldi observed.
As society changed, burial practices evolved, as well. By the mid-20th century, "lawn park" sections of smaller, evenly-spaced stones on level ground succeeded the crowded hillsides of different-sized monuments at St. Agnes. Large plots where entire families were buried together gave way to couples buying just two-grave lots, then double-depth lawn crypts that conserve even more space.
Cremation became permissible for Catholics in 1963 and rose in popularity. Today, it's "huge," said Ms. Grimaldi. The Church teaches that cremated remains must be buried or entombed, so St. Agnes Cemetery added urn gardens, columbaria and niches in community mausoleums.
St. Agnes today
One modern effort for the cemetery is the restoration of 19th-century monuments. Through the generosity of donors, dozens of stones of historical significance have been repaired or replaced.
Many are those of Civil War soldiers; at least 525 are buried at St. Agnes. Supporters are invited to "adopt" a grave and fund a stone's restoration, and can even take courses on proper gravestone cleaning. Other veterans have also been honored with special VA lots at the cemetery and ceremonies to salute them.
Two special sections of the cemetery are reserved for the burial of cremated remains of people who donated their bodies to the Anatomical Gift Program through Albany Medical College. Every September, there's a memorial service at which "families and medical students pay their respects to the people who made the ultimate gift to the study of medicine," Ms. Grimaldi writes.
In 2005, the remains of 14 slaves owned by the Schuyler family of Albany in the Colonial era were unearthed during construction work in Menands. Last year, after a DNA analysis of the remains concluded, these "Schuyler Flatts" remains were laid to rest in what was titled the African Burial Ground at St. Agnes Cemetery.
Another significant part of St. Agnes' work today is The Living Room Art Gallery. Since 2013, the cemetery has offered popular art classes and exhibits in its office space.
Behind all of these efforts is the knowledge of the people St. Agnes Cemetery exists to serve.
"Who do cemeteries serve? They serve the living," Ms. Grimaldi said.
"The cemetery tells the story of the history and culture of the county and city," Mr. Touchette affirmed.
When he walks through St. Agnes each day, Mr. Touchette sees people visiting the graves of loved ones, but also running and walking dogs on the grounds. He reads monuments and offers prayers for the people whose names are carved on them.
"From a historian's standpoint, I prefer people think about a cemetery as a final resting place. I don't like human remains being disposed of," Ms. Grimaldi remarked.
"You don't just put your loved one in the ground and walk away," she continued. "Do you know how cool it is for people to come in and find a gravestone from the 1800s, and [realize] it's their relative? It's like they hit the lottery."
About 400 people are buried in St. Agnes Cemetery each year, and there's a lot of room left. Mr. Touchette expects his work to continue for many years to come.
"People will still want a place to memorialize their families," he said. "They'll still want a place to come and grieve, and remember."