There is an abandoned cemetery in the yard directly behind St. Joseph’s church in Huntingdon. Gravestones have fallen, some are broken, and others have sunk into the ground. Most date from the mid- to late 1800s.
Marie-Andrée McSween, who is the president of the wardens at the catholic church, says she is profoundly concerned about the challenges lying ahead when it comes to cemetery maintenance and sustainability. She says it was out of this concern that a decision was made to publish a post on Facebook, stating that Catholic cemeteries were now able to resell plots where upkeep fees were not being paid. The post was widely shared and sparked an immediate response.
“It caused some upset and misunderstanding among parishioners,” McSween admits, saying she requested that the original post be removed, and a new, more moderate message be published in its place. The second publication explains that while the reselling of older plots is now an option, the wardens at St. Joseph’s parish will not allow the original names on monuments to be covered. She says that while the uproar is unfortunate, it may have opened the door to a frank discussion on burial plot ownership and cemetery upkeep.
Some family plots have contracts associated with them that date back over 100 years, stipulating that upkeep is paid in perpetuity for the sum of $10. The post explains that the church will honour a perpetual contract for the duration of the life of the contract holder and their spouse. Once they are deceased, however, the upkeep fees are transferred to the eldest immediate descendant. Should they refuse to take on the responsibility, it can be passed down the family line. Unfortunately, the church is not always able to find family members willing to maintain ancestral plots and upkeep fees often go unpaid. Only about a third of the 900 plots in St. Joseph’s currently generate revenue from upkeep fees, while maintenance for the Huntingdon cemetery has cost over $10,000 this year.
“We could take away all of the stones older than 99 years,” McSween says, “But we never would.” Instead, she hopes those with ancestors buried in Huntingdon will come forward to cover the upkeep fees, which are currently set at $45 per year.
Dundee and Herdman cemeteries
When the Diocese of Valleyfield closed the Ste. Agnès church in Dundee as well as the St. Patrice church in Herdman, the responsibility for the cemeteries was transferred to St. Joseph’s. Unfortunately, the archives kept by the churches were not immediately included in the transfer. Church volunteers were able to recuperate the original handwritten archives of the St. Patrice de Hinchinbrooke cemetery, says McSween, but they have very few records of those buried in Dundee. “We are trying, through the people who come to church, to locate information on the families of those buried in Dundee and Herdman,” she says, noting upkeep fees are currently being paid for about 30 plots out of roughly 250 at the Ste. Agnès cemetery.
“We have turned the boat around, at least in St. Joseph’s,” says McSween, but she admits that unless more families come forward, especially in Dundee and Herdman, the future of the cemeteries could very well be in doubt.