St. John’s church group uncovers past of previously abandoned rural graveyard
Brian Walter knew that once they began clearing the brush away from the 10-acre patch of land they would find gravestones, but he didn’t expect to find relatives.
The 150-year-old cemetery is the resting place of more than a dozen early Lawrence residents: a settler from Ireland, three brothers who died of smallpox, a university professor, and, it turns out, Walter’s great-grandfather.
A curb cut off Kansas Highway 10 and a metal livestock fence serve as the cemetery’s entrance. The other three sides of the cemetery border the city’s as-yet-undeveloped business park, Lawrence VenturePark. The cemetery is often referred to as St. John or Franklin Cemetery, after the pro-slavery settlement that was once nearby.
What those buried among the 10 acres have in common is that they were Catholic, and when they died more than 100 years ago, there wasn’t a place for them in town.
The Knights of Columbus of Council 1372, from St. John the Evangelist Catholic church, began an effort to clean up the cemetery a year ago. But it has since turned into more.
Walter, a member of the council, had questions: who were the people buried there, why was the cemetery abandoned, and what might be its future?
“I think because of that personal connection, it just made me really want to find the story behind the cemetery, which I’m slowly piecing together,” Walter said.
Walter said archives indicate there were as many as 80 burials at the cemetery, spanning from about 1870 to 1917. After clearing trees, brush and debris, Walter and the other council members reset some of the stones that had toppled over. Others lie in pieces where they fell.
There appears to have been no grid used, and entire families are sometimes marked with one headstone or monument. One low, flat stone at the base of an evergreen tree says simply “Grandma.” Homeless people sometimes take up residence at the cemetery, and toward the back of the clearing is a small campsite with a blue tent, zipped up to keep out mosquitoes.
After months of searching newspaper archives and other records, Walter has compiled truncated versions of peoples’ lives. The stories of the deceased overflow a three-inch binder he carries as he steps through the shorn trees, grass and thistle that until recently hid the cemetery from view. Among the stories is that of his great-grandfather and why his grave ended up in a rural graveyard outside a town he never lived in.
Walter said they removed about 75 trees to thin the wooded area at the top of a hill where most of the 18 remaining gravestones were found.
The cemetery has been remembered and forgotten again more than once since its last burial in the early 1900s. Walter said every 10 or 20 years a group comes out and clears the brush, but not much more. This time around, the council plans to maintain the cemetery long-term and bring it and those buried there back into the fold of the church.
“I think what hasn’t happened in the past was there hasn’t been perpetual care after a cleanup,” Walter said. “So they might go in and do some work, and then in 15, 20 years it gets pretty bad again.”
Walter’s personal connection is a component of that larger effort. That discovery was made after one of the names, William Grauel, on burial records from Watkins Museum of History sounded familiar to Walter. After consulting relatives, Walter discovered that Grauel was his great-grandfather
Through old newspaper notices, Walter found that Grauel was a carpenter from Topeka and had been in Lawrence working on what is only referred to as “the science building.” While in town, Grauel fell ill and died. He was buried in the corner of the property, far removed from the other graves at the top of the hill.
Walter’s notebook also tells the stories of others. The Dolans, for instance, had several family members buried at the cemetery. Walter said his research found that the father and three sons all died in the span of a week from smallpox, and that the brothers were buried together under a single marker. An infant brother joined them the next year.
Though the cemetery is named for Franklin, newspaper archives indicate that many of those buried at the cemetery were Lawrence residents. Others are from rural areas, such as John Corcoran, who lived “near Linwood,” according to his 1909 death notice in the Lawrence Daily Journal. The notice called Corcoran “one of the oldest settlers of this section of Kansas.”
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kansas City owns the 10-acre parcel the cemetery sits on. St. John’s Pastor Jeff Ernst said he is not sure why that site was chosen for the cemetery, but that St. John’s was established in 1856 and that there would have been parishioners in the outlying districts.
Walter also has ideas about that. At the time, Walter said the cemetery was more than three miles from Lawrence.
“Being Catholic wasn’t popular; there was ill regard toward Catholics back in the late 1800s,” Walter said. “So maybe that’s why it was so far out of town.”
What is known is that eventually, the Mount Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Lawrence was opened and burials at the Franklin Cemetery ceased. And at some point, the old cemetery was abandoned.
Ernst, who joined St. John’s in 2014, said Mount Calvary will likely run out of open plots in about five years. He said though the church would likely look for another site in town, the immediate solution would be to resume burials at the Franklin Cemetery.
Scott McCullough, director of planning and development, said Franklin Cemetery — as well as another, smaller cemetery a couple lots over — are “county islands.” McCullough explained that the city expanded and surrounded the cemeteries, but they remain outside the city limits.
The other cemetery is known as Old Franklin Cemetery, and has a handful of graves just outside the entrance of East Hills Business Park. Online county property records don’t indicate an owner of that cemetery.
While VenturePark is currently empty, a company has plans to construct several industrial buildings in the business park. McCullough said the presence of the cemeteries doesn’t affect the city or the nearby business parks.
“We just honor their property lines and apply the codes, in terms of setbacks on neighboring properties,” McCullough said. “They live harmoniously together.”
Ernst said the church plans to establish a crew to ensure the cemetery is better cared for, much like the crew that maintains Mount Calvary. He said they want to grade the road, plant different species of trees and make the area more like a park.
“Right now, it’s kind of a natural grove, and they’ve cleared out the central area of it,” Ernst said. “They’ve done a great job, but I want to restore it to some kind of dignity and try to maintain that.”
The council’s efforts to uncover the history of the cemetery will also continue. Walter said records indicate many graves were moved to Mount Calvary, but he doesn’t know if those relocations account for all the missing tombstones or whether there are unmarked graves. He said that of the approximately 80 burials at Franklin Cemetery, there are still about 20 graves unaccounted for.
“Maybe everybody didn’t have a tombstone,” Walter said. “You know, not everybody could afford tombstones and some of these tombstones were put in after the fact.”
Walter said he is suspicious of a pile of rocks and other rubble discovered on the land, as well as some unmarked depressions in the earth. He said the council is hoping to arrange with geological surveyors with the University of Kansas to use special radar to search for any unmarked graves.
In the meantime, St. John’s will be giving the deceased some of the acknowledgment that was lost to weeds and bramble over the decades. Ernst said that on Nov. 2, All Souls Day, he will be going to the cemetery to perform a traditional blessing.
“It’s a blessing of the cemeteries, another dignified service for the deceased,” Ernst said.