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RHODES: An ancient gravestone from an ancient cemetery

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I operate a website known as Chatham History, which has more than 5,000 members who post old photos and information regarding local history.

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The site, on occasion, receives some intriguing subject matter, such as that of an errant grave stone found on the property at the southwest junction of First Street and Wellington Street West.

The following is a post submitted on Oct. 1, 2021 by our member Jessica Mitchell. It reads as follows:

“We found the top of a cemetery stone … White marble. We did a shading but were not able to definitely make anything out. However, it does appear to be either two hands together, palms open, facing up, or book open. I have attached a photo. I am not sure how it made it here, as no site reports indicate an immediate area of burial. I would like to know what everyone (at Chatham History) thinks. Found in the area of First and Wellington streets.”

I have a couple of theories as to how the stone came to be where it was found.

I believe the stone may have come from Old St. Paul’s burial ground.

Commencing in the mid-1820s, local burials were done at Old St. Paul’s.

In conjunction with the cemetery, there was a small frame church which was replaced in the mid-1860s by Christ Church, Wellington Street, which still stands.

The Old St. Paul’s church eventually fell victim to an arsonist.

The church and cemetery were located at the far east end of what was then known as Gaol (Goal) Street. This is now Stanley Avenue.

In 1880, the Erie and Huron Railway (C&O) announced that they were going to lay their tracks through the middle of the cemetery. This would seem barbaric but the Railway Act was powerful and allowed the E & H to do just about whatever they wanted.

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People were given the opportunity to move the bodies and stones of their loved ones to the new Maple Leaf Cemetery, and many people did that.

Many graves, however, were not moved, as relatives may have moved away or were disinterested in the abolishment that was about to take place.

At one point, I believe in the latter 1890s, the Anglican Church hired a local man to locate as many of the graves as he could find and move them.

He laid out a grid of what he thought to be the boundary lines of the cemetery and started digging trenches, north and south, across what he believed to be the interment rows.

As he came across bones, he would collect them for interment at Maple Leaf Cemetery.

Unfortunately, he did not find all the graves.

To further complicate the issue, not all of the graves were actually inside the cemetery.

Some bodies, as we have discovered in recent years, were buried under the street and on adjacent private property.

How did the stone get to the intersection of First and Wellington?

The stone may have been recovered by a family for custodial purposes so that it would not become part of a sidewalk, as has been the case with other markers from Old St. Paul’s.

There can also be the issue of safe temporary keeping by a religious entity.

At one time, the home at First and Wellington, was used by the Ursuline order. The stone may have been vandalized and recovered and then taken to the sisters for safe keeping. In either case, it is speculation on my part.

Jessica is investigating the issue to a further extent.

The stone is in proper hands.

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