Saint John, New Brunswick

The story below was taken from the Telegraph Journal, Saturday, June 13/98

History Abounds in Fernhill Cemetery
A ramble through the 150-year-old cemetery reveals markers of two Fathers of Confederation and a dark villain.

Written by David Goss

The Rest House in Fernhill

Photo By David Goss

   SAINT JOHN'S Fernhill Cemetery has long been a popular place to visit. In fact, 37,000 people have chosen it as the destination of their last earthly trip in the 150 years since Georgenna Campbell was interred in lot 10 on Spruce Avenue on March 8, 1848.

   To find her grave marker, or that of anyone else in Fernhill, simply drop into the office on Westmorland Road, and ask manager Ann Maloughney for the location.

   For example, if you wanted to see the grave site of two Fathers of Confederation, Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley, and William Henry Steeves, she can help.

   If you're interested in the stone of one of the few Canadians to have been awarded the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honour, you will be directed to the grave of Coles Island native George Frederick Phillips at lot 3025 on Cherry Avenue.

   If you've heard the poignant story of the murder of Maggie Vail and her little one at Black River, and want to see the villain's grave site - John Munroe is buried here as well. For many years following his burial, a white scarf was tied to a nearby tree to mark the spot, but there is no scarf today, so you'll have to look carefully on Snowdrop Path.

   Ann can send you off looking for the stone of Mark Varley, the Centennary Church adherent who set up the Varley Trust to educate Saint John children long before there were public schools. She might send you in search of the marker to John Beamish, the founder of the Knights of Pythias in Canada or to the tomb of William Kilby Reynolds, the first to successfully build a bridge over the Reversing Falls.

   There are hundreds of other interesting graves and grave markers in the park-like setting of these grounds.

Personally, I enjoy just wandering about, and making my discoveries on an as-it-happens basis. I'm not averse to taking a lunch along and enjoying a picnic when I get tired of rambling: This is a long standing tradition at Fernhill. They even have a Rest House for the wanderer. Before the days of the automobile, when Fernhill was still known as the Rural Cemetery, it was considered quite a jaunt out from the centre of town, and was truly the outskirts.

Families would take the horse-drawn omnibus from King's Square and spend the day in the bucolic setting as an alternative to a day at Seaside Park or Rockwood Park, the other locations that were accessible by public transport.

   Once at Fernhill, they would walk some of the 50 miles of roadways that wind through the dappled shadows of the leafy bowers, enjoying the serenade of brooks that splash through the hilly site.

Gilbert Plot

Photo By David Goss

   Almost everyone visiting would climb the hilltop to Prospect Point, and admire the view over the great marsh toward Rockwood from the ring of stones that border the Gilbert plot.

   Sometime during the day, if they had family members in the cemetery, they would stop to pay their respects and spruce up the site.

   That would be the time that other stones would be noted, epitaplis read, intricate stonework studied, and carvings of angels admired. Some might wonder what had happened to the arm of the stone lady high on the column of the Walter Tisdale marker, or what motivated James Ruel to present a decorative cast iron cemetery fountain. If parents could not answer these questions, they certainly would have been able to explain the symbols on the stones - the open Bibles, the weeping willows, clasped hands and hand pointing heavenward that were in vogue through much of the early era of this 150-year-old cemetery.

   All this is still available at Fernhill. Time has worn the words, and bruised the beauty of many of the memorials that were, when placed, considered everlasting. Money set aside long ago for perpetual care has not proven adequate, yet the volunteer board that maintains the cemetery on a non-profit basis has continued on. As times have changed, they have added such features as the Maritimes' first crematorium in 1939, and in 1995, Saint John's first columbarium. Today, they continue the work, constantly maintaining the grounds and buildings out of respect to those who rest here.

   This year, in marking their 150th anniversary, they are anxious to show off the century-and-a-half of work. In a tradition begun many years ago, there will be a brief ceremony (organized by Joan Pearce) on July 1at 9am , at the graves of the two Fathers of Confederation - just follow the flags from the Westmorland Road entrance. Three hours later, I will lead a Canada Day Walk, leaving from the Rest House pavilion.

    In addition, an official program of the board will be held at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, July 7, at the Rest House, unveiling a marker to Georgenna Campbell first burial in Fernhill. Ann Maloughney was still working on details of the program when I put this column together, but was sure there would be some entertainment, and refreshments will be served. She will also have copies of the official Fernhill Walk, and information will be available on the current fund- raising program for replacement of trees downed during the January ice storm. For information, call Ann at 652-1133.

    So, don't wait till it's too late to appreciate the beauty of Fernhill ...or a cemetery in your area... get out and enjoy a visit now.