With the exception of Thomas Danisi’s home on Mackay Place and a portion of Manuel Lisa’s fur warehouse in the Old Courthouse downtown, almost the last vestiges of Colonial St. Louis are to be found in a Catholic cemetery, the city’s largest, in north St. Louis.
Covering 477 acres and containing some 330,000 burials, Calvary Cemetery – bordered by West Florissant Avenue on the south, Calvary Avenue on the east, Broadway and Switzer Road on the north and Riverview Boulevard on the west – is a treasure trove of St. Louis history.
Even before Archbishop Peter Kenrick of the Archdiocese of St. Louis purchased Senator Henry Clay’s 323-acre “Old Orchard Farm” in 1853,* the adjoining property
(acquired later) held the graves of soldiers who had served at Fort Belle Fontaine between 1805 and 1828 and an “Indian Burial Ground” of indeterminate age. Those individuals remain at Calvary still.
If that earthwork was akin to the burial mound atop which John O’Fallon built Athlone, his four-story, country mansion, a mile and a half away in what is today O’Fallon Park, it was likely Mississippian in origin.
John O’Fallon thought that he had chosen the highest hill northwest of St. Louis for his country house until the builders digging its foundation turned up cartloads of skeletal remains and pottery shards.
O’Fallon, one of the most successful merchants in St. Louis history, buried his uncle, explorer William Clark, on a lower sweep of his estate overlooking the Mississippi River. Before it became Bellefontaine Cemetery. Just across the road from Henry Clay’s farm. A narrow, two lane road is all that separates these deeply historic cemeteries today.
Archbishop Kenrick used the mansion that stood near the western end of the “Old Orchard Farm” and Riverview Boulevard as a summer retreat (later Carmelite nuns would use it as a home for orphans) and began to plan a cemetery on its eastern end because the Great Cholera Epidemic of 1849 had left existing Catholic cemeteries full.
According Jeanne Besselsen, Assistant Director of Calvary Cemetery, the first burials after Calvary was established in 1857 took place along Calvary Avenue overlooking Broadway, with a beautiful view of the Mississippi River. The Hunt Mausoleum was ideally situated for this, literally dug into the hillside and facing east. Fine, large cameos of Ann Lucas Hunt and both of her husbands – Theodore Hunt, whom she married first, and his cousin Wilson, whom she married after Theodore died – are engraved in stone above the entrance.
The Hunt Mausoleum’s placement has powerful emotional significance. You must leave the upper road and walk down into the sculpted grave site in order to see the mausoleum’s facade. Turned away as it is from the entire rest of the cemetery, the view would have been of river, prairie and sunrise, with no lingering images of death.
Along the high, eastern road to the oldest graves you will find Mullanphys – John, the city’s first philanthropist and his wife Elizabeth, both natives of Ireland – along with their son Bryan, early St. Louis mayor and founder of the world-wide Travellers Aid Fund.
The Clemens’ can be found nearby – James, first cousin to Mark Twain and the love of his life, Eliza Mullanphy Clemens, youngest daughter of John and Elizabeth.
You will also find Soulards – Antoine, who surveyed the Upper Louisiana Territory for the King of Spain and his wife, Julie Cerre Soulard, who deeded part of her land to the City of St. Louis for so long as it should be maintained as a public market. It bears their name and St. Louisans still shop there on Saturday mornings. Soulard Market is the oldest, continuously maintained public market in the U.S. as a result of Julia’s foresight.
According to Calvary Cemetery archives, the farm deeded to Ann Clay by her father, Henry consisted of “a gracious plantation house (two-story, brick constructed in 1845**), slave quarters and all of the amenities of the Southern garden.”***
“Old Orchard Farm” was used for grazing, sections of it never tilled. They have been identified as “the last known, native tall grass prairie in St. Louis.”****
And the Archdiocese of St. Louis has agreed to preserve it for one hundred years.
In 2007 several local organizations including the Nature Conservancy, the Missouri Department of Conservation, the Missouri Botanical Garden, Trailnet and Forest Park Forever joined with the Archdiocesan Cemetery Association to restore and preserve an area of approximately 25 acres where over 130 species of flowering plants and grasses flourish as they have since long before St. Louis’ Colonial period.****
Jim Kirchherr of KETC-TV/ PBS in St. Louis interviewed Doug Ladd of the Nature Conservancy in 2008 as they walked a section of the Calvary Prairie and Ladd pointed out some of its now rare species – like “Big Blue Stem Grass” which “can grow higher than a man on a horse.” Ladd described how “seas of (such) grass once covered almost two-thirds of what is today the City of St. Louis.”*****
When I visited the area last week with my husband the grasses and wildflowers were a profusion of autumn color. We were struck not only by its beauty and timelessness but by how arduous the work must have been to clear and plant a vast area of Missouri prairie when the first farmers arrived – the Mississippians, the French and later in great numbers, the Germans.
Cadets from Jennings High School’s ROTC program spent hours weeding the preserve, which experts determined to be in danger of being overrun with a weed that is indigenous to China.***** and created paths for walking.
Twenty-two interpretative signs designed by art students from Christ, Light of Nations School identify the native plant species wherein foxes and wild turkeys make their home in this historic stretch of prairie; this natural wonder within 21st century St. Louis.
The graves of thousands of the earliest settlers of St. Louis – French, Spanish, Creole, Canadian, Indian, West Indian and Afro-American – who would have known the greater prairie intimately were reburied around a bend in Calvary’s outer road, to the north and east of the prairie in 1950. Their original location was the church block laid out by Pierre Laclede in 1764 on the St. Louis Riverfront where the Old Cathedral stands today.
The Gamache Family and the Archdiocese of St. Louis placed a monument inscribed with many of their names in Section 5D of Calvary Cemetery. It stands in the grassy meadow that covers their graves, a beautiful setting as tranquil and serene as the land was when it captured the hearts of the first settlers.
How symbolic that the long passage of time (nearly two hundred years in some cases) necessitated their having to be reburied in a broad communal grave! These first St. Louisans were culturally, racially and socially diverse yet they lived and worked closely together, bound by a shared vision and the need to survive on the brink of a vast wilderness, here on the bluffs above the Mississippi.
As I walked their grave site I was reminded how rich the cultural fabric of this community had been. How often on mild spring, summer and autumn evenings you could have walked from one end of the Village of Saint Louis to the other and heard the children being sung to sleep with lullabies in languages that stretched from North America to Europe to Africa.
City founder, Pierre Laclede is named on this tall vertical monument tho’ he died and was buried near Arkansas Post on a return trip from New Orleans, never making it home. His stepson and co-founder of St. Louis, Auguste Chouteau, is listed also, although he has a tablet marker among the graves of his immediate family in the oldest section of the cemetery. The year of his birth was intentionally inscribed inaccurately on that tablet. I expect there is more of Auguste in the meadow than beneath the tablet.
Auguste’s half-brother, Pierre Chouteau, Sr. has a beautifully carved sarcophagus in the Famille Chouteau grave site atop one of the highest hills in Calvary Cemetery. It’s reached by a double, balconied staircase of marble that mirrors the entrance to his home on Main Street/Rue Royale in Old St. Louis.The sarcophagus of his mother, Marie Bourgeois Chouteau, la mere de Saint Louis, rests in another segment of the circular, compass-like grave site overlooking a valley even as her home overlooked the Mississippi River downtown. There is surely more of Marie in the grassy meadow than there is on the hilltop where her grandson, Pierre Chouteau, Jr. symbolized the family’s place in St. Louis history so stunningly .
Nearby the Early Settlers Monument is a memorial sculpted in eagle feathers to honor four Nez Perce leaders, two of whom were laid to rest in this meadow. In the autumn of 1831 they arrived in St. Louis, having walked almost two thousand miles from the present-day state of Idaho for a “Blackrobe”, a priest to explain to their people “The Book of Heaven.” Such stoicism, courage and spiritual zeal are almost unthinkable in today’s world.
Black Eagle and Speaking Eagle died in St. Louis as a result of their arduous journey. Rabbit-Leggings and No-Horns-on-His-Head perished on their journey home.
The Blackrobe their people eventually received (after a fourth delegation of Indians came to St. Louis for a priest) was the great Belgian Jesuit, Father Peter De Smet, who in the course of his ministry to tribal nations west of the Mississippi River traveled more than 180,000 miles.
Father DeSmet, who had taught English at St. Louis College (today University) found his true calling among the many tribal nations who revered him and to whom he was devoted. Originally buried in Florissant, Fr. DeSmet was re-interred nearby among the St. Louis Jesuit Community.
Last Tuesday, at the request of Maria Sullivan, I conducted an Oasis Tour of a few of Calvary Cemetery’s most historic sections. Calvary is not one of my areas of specialty and it never will be. It is far too expansive a walking area, too easy to get lost in if you’re driving, and it is a bottomless well of history. But my family graves are here, I’ve done a lot of research in specific areas and I was happy to spend a couple of hours showing this group of Seniors some of Calvary’s highlights. We barely scratched the surface.
I would like to mount an initiative to install a marker of some kind near Dred Scott’s head stone that can be seen from a distance so as to facilitate people’s locating one of the most precious grave sites in St. Louis.
We did make it to William Tecumseh Sherman’s grave site where our tour ended. The tall flag pole draped with the Stars and Stripes is viewable from a great distance and serves as a much appreciated landmark. The monument raised by veterans who served under General Sherman to commemorate his son, Willie is as poignant a reminder of the devastation of war as any in The Lou. It awakened the early stirrings of the historian in me. I remember from childhood passing it on the way to and from my grandparents’ graves. It took me many years but I finally found out all I wanted to know about the little boy who is buried here.
The staff at the Calvary Cemetery Office is very knowledgeable and helpful with family and historical research. Their Historical Tour Outline and Map are free and invaluable references for negotiating one of The Lou’s deepest treasure troves, where history is preserved as a sacred legacy. Autumn is a particularly beautiful time to visit Calvary!
I would like to thank Jeanne Besselsen, Associate Director of Calvary Cemetery for generously taking the time to answer my questions regarding the evolution of the cemetery, the Clay Mansion and the Prairie Project.
References: * Calvary Cemetery Archives reference purchase of “Old Orchard Farm” from the estate of Susan Clay, who was long dead by 1853. Susan Hart Clay Duralde, tragically died of yellow fever as a young mother in the City of New Orleans in 1825, predeceasing her famous father by twenty-seven years. **A Missouri Guide to the Show Me State – Walter A. Schroeder & Howard W. Marshall, a WPA Guide. ***Archives of Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, MO.**** Interpretive Marker in Calvary Prairie. *****Doug Ladd of the Missouri Conservancy, 2008 interview by Jim Kirchherr of KETC-TV’s Living St. Louis: Calvary Prairie.
Photo Sources: Henry Clay – photographer unknown, in the public domain at wikipedia.org; Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet – photographed by Matthew Brady – in the public domain at wikipedia.org; Nez Perce Village – in the public domain at wikipedia.org; Calvary Prairie Interpretive Signs (3 images) – used with the kind permission of Jeanne Besselsen, the photographer; all other photos: Thomas & Maureen Kavanaugh.