I’ve been living in Ontario for a few months now, but in just a couple of days it will finally be time to complete the second half of the move (i.e. moving the rest of the stuff, the car, and my partner). It’s crazy to think that we are going to be leaving the island so soon, but we will definitely be back for loads of visits.
I thought what better way to kick off part 2 of our move…and part 2 of the Curious Canadian Cemeteries Series, than with a site in St. John’s that I have visited on multiple occasions, and even wrote a paper on: The Belvedere Roman Catholic Cemetery.
While the Great Fire that devastated St. John’s in 1892 destroyed many homes and businesses in the historic core of the city, aspects of the city’s burial landscape remained poised on the crest of a hill, out of reach of the flames. The Belvedere Roman Catholic Cemetery is located between Bonaventure Rd and Empire Ave to the north and northwest, and Major Ave and Newtown Road to the south and southwest, away from the area of town that was effected by the fire, and thus remains one of the oldest still-present burial grounds within the City of St. John’s.
The cemetery opened in 1810, and was used up into the late 20th century (if not more recently), and is a consecrated Catholic burial ground, now closed to further interments (NGB 2018). Because the cemetery avoided the fire, it is an excellent location to visit if you are interested in some of the oldest in situ gravestones that were carved in the City.
As I talk about frequently on this blog, gravestone carving by Europeans settlers in Newfoundland goes back as far as the 1620s, and likely earlier, as the settlement of Cupids had many recorded deaths in the first few years of its existence. However, our data pool to draw from for early gravestones carved in Newfoundland is limited to the 2 gravestones from Ferryland, and a handful of others from the 18th-century that are few and far between (or unrecorded).
Gravestone carving as an established tradition and enterprise really began in St. John’s around the late 18th and into the early 19th century, with such names as ‘J. Hayes/Hay MacKim, and Alexander Smith’ appearing in records as well as many of the gravestones present in the older sections of Belvedere RC. If you are visiting, try looking at the stones in sections I, III, V, and VI, as the oldest sections of the cemetery. If you look carefully around the base of the stone on the front or back you might be able to find the name of the carver who made it! (Sometimes this text is partially buried, but in no circumstances am I suggesting you dig to find it. That would require you to a) have permission from the Church & City, b) be an archaeology, and c) have an archaeological excavation permit from the Provincial Archaeology Office.)
The names mentioned above are all gravestone carvers who had their shops in St. John’s around the turn of the century, and whose work can be seen not only in St. John’s, but across the Avalon and probably further afield in Newfoundland as well. In the 1830s, Alexander Smith became the first gravestone in Newfoundland carver to import marble from the mainland for use in carving gravestones, a practice that quickly caught on, and continued for many years (Pocius 1981:10). Unfortunately marble is rich with calcium carbonate and is extremely susceptible to weathering, making it difficult to read some more exposed monuments Within the Belvedere RC Cemetery, you can see that there are multiply gravestones carved by the same artists, which quickly became the more popular option than having the gravestones ordered and shipped from the UK or Ireland. This shows the importance of having commodities available close to home, even in death.
Through my own research, drawing on Pocius’ work (1975, 1981), it is evident that the gravestones carved in Newfoundland during the 19th century followed stylistic trends which were popular in the period across the British Isles and eastern North america, where the majority of influence on Newfoundland came from. Images we are familiar with from the 19th-century, such as urns, flowers, hands, and willows are frequently see in Newfoundland burial grounds, as well as across the wider western Christian world. They appear with such frequency that they can’t really be used to make statements about society at the time (Pocius 1981, Ames 1981, Baugher and Veit 2014).
It is clear in these examples that certain styles were definitely pervasive, particularly the scroll-top marble gravestones, which were carved by several different carvers for decades. Gravestone carvings continued to be an important business in St. Johns, as the image above shows another local gravestone carver by the name Muir, whose gravestones carved in the early 1900s can be see as far away as Labrador (Jarvis 1995). When I visited Belvedere for research, I was only looking at gravestones from the 1800s, but it is more than likely that you would be able to find Muir’s work among the gravestones at this site as well, contributing to the very impressive collection of in situ gravestones, all carved in right in St. John’s.
As one of the oldest surviving burial grounds in St. John’s, the Belvedere Roman Catholic Cemetery remains as a proud reminder of the history the city’s people, and its evolving gravestone traditions. The cemetery is nestled on the outskirts of the downtown core, and is well worth a visit if you’re in the area (visit the Georgetown Cafe while you’re at it, it’s just a block or so away). Thanks for reading!
Ames, K. L. 1981. Ideologies in Stone: Meanings in Victorian Gravestones. The Journal of Popular Culture. Pg. 641 – 656.
Baugher, S. and Veit, R. F. 2014. The Archaeology of American Cemeteries and Gravemarkers. University Press of Florida, Gainesville, Florida.
Jarvis, D. 1995. Gravestone marker, Okak, Labrador. Moravian Architecture of Labrador – Dale Jarvis collection. Scanned from colour slide number CG26. Centre for Newfoundland Studies.
McGrath, A. 1980. Newfoundland Photography, 1849-1949. From the Collections of the Newfoundland Museum. Breakwater Books: St. John’s.
Peterman, C. 2011. Map of Belvedere RC Cemetery, St. John’s. Newfoundland Grand Banks website. Available from: http://ngb.chebucto.org/Cemetery/view-belvedere-rc-diagram-sje.shtml.
Pocius, G. L. 1975. The Place of Burial: Spatial focus of Contact of the Living with the Dead in Eastern Areas of the Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland. Master of Arts thesis. Department of Folklore: Memorial University of Newfoundland.
Pocius, Gerald, L. 1981. Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-century Newfoundland Gravestones: Self-Sufficiency, Economic Specialization, and the Creation of Artifacts. Material Culture Review. Volume 12 (Spring). Pg. 1-16.
Transcriptions of Cemeteries found in St. John’s, Newfoundland Grand Banks. 2018. Available from: http://ngb.chebucto.org/Cemetery/1city-cem-idx.shtml