In 1996 Pat O’Connor set out for Cold Springs Cemetery in Auburn with one goal in mind: to find the grave of a great-aunt he’d heard was buried there.
When he arrived at the cemetery, however, he discovered it had been neglected and was overgrown with five or six decades worth of vegetation, O’Connor said. Only about 30 stones were visible from the entrance to the cemetery, even though O’Connor later learned more than 600 people were buried there.
He didn’t find his great-aunt’s stone, but he said he was moved by the condition of the cemetery and decided he wanted to clean it up. Cold Springs — Auburn’s first Catholic cemetery — dates back to the 1840s and is the final resting place of many Irish immigrants and a number of Civil War veterans, O’Connor noted.
“A lot of those people sat in the same pews that I sit in every weekend,” said O’Connor, a member of Auburn’s Holy Family Parish, which was founded in 1834. “Most of the relatives of these people are gone or in nursing homes now.”
For nearly 10 years O’Connor and another local man devoted their spare time to cutting down trees and weeds that had sprung up in the cemetery and mowing the areas they cleared. In May, however, O’Connor planned a cemetery cleanup day and asked Father Dennis Shaw, Holy Family’s pastor, if he would help spread the word about it.
Father Shaw agreed, and more than 60 people from Holy Family and Auburn’s other Catholic parishes spent several hours that day clearing brush from the cemetery, O’Connor said. The event was so well-attended that O’Connor decided to organize monthly cemetery cleanup days for at least the duration of the summer. About 35 people attended the second cleanup day, which was held June 24, he said.
“We’re just hauling brush, raking the grounds. There’s a lot of debris on the grounds. There’s a lot of brush, and a lot of the stones are laying down flat,” O’Connor said. “It’s hard work, but it’s fun.”
Dave McCarthy, a member of Auburn’s Sacred Heart Parish, was one of the people who attended both cleanup days and plans to continue volunteering in the cemetery. Like O’Connor, McCarthy also was motivated to beautify the cemetery after searching there for an ancestor’s grave.
In February McCarthy and his wife paid their first visit to the cemetery in search of the grave of Susan O’Hagan, McCarthy’s great-great-aunt. They’d learned she was buried there after searching several genealogy Web sites, one of which included a rudimentary map of the cemetery. Even armed with a map, however, it took the McCarthy’s two hours to locate O’Hagan’s stone, which had been toppled by a tree, covered in mud and overgrown with brush.
“I came home and got a shovel and some water and cleaned (the stone) and lifted it off the ground so it wouldn’t be covered again,” McCarthy recalled.
When McCarthy and his wife heard about the first cleanup day in May, they felt obligated to participate, he said.
“The history of the cemetery is a very rich and valuable part of our community, and I don’t think it should be neglected,” said McCarthy, a retired history teacher.
At both cleanup days, volunteers with chainsaws, weed eaters and hedge clippers cut down trees and brush in the cemetery while more volunteers dragged the brush away. This was actually harder than cutting down the brush, because sometimes it had to be dragged quite a distance to a parishioner’s waiting dump truck, he said.
“You have to be very careful where you drive trucks in the cemetery,” McCarthy said, noting that the truck was only used in certain areas of the cemetery out of fear that some of the old graves might collapse under its weight.
More than half of the four-acre cemetery has been cleared so far, O’Connor said. Once the cemetery has been completely cleared, he hopes to stop holding monthly cleanup days and instead hold one in the spring and another in the fall. O’Connor’s work will continue long after the brush has been removed, however, because several years ago he assigned himself the task of keeping the grass in the cemetery mowed and neat.
“The more I clean up, the more I have to mow,” O’Connor said. “It takes about seven hours to mow now.”
Once all the brush has been cleared, O’Connor hopes he and his team of volunteers can begin righting the many gravestones which have been toppled by trees, vandalism, weather and age. Many of the stones are especially interesting because they list not only the deceased’s names, birth dates and death dates, but also the Irish counties and parishes the immigrants came from, he said.
“I want to erect all the stones and have people record all the information on them. I’d like to maybe encourage people to adopt a plot. Eventually I’d like to have tours of the place,” O’Connor said.
Although Cold Springs Cemetery has seen better days, O’Connor believes it has the potential to become a valuable historical resource and attraction for the community.
“It’s quite a unique cemetery,” O’Connor said. “It’s kind of a really neat thing that’s been hidden and lost.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information about the next Cold Springs Cemetery cleanup day, contact Holy Family Parish at 315/252-9576.