By Patricia Buschette of Renville
The lane between fields of wheat and soybeans appears to be a field road leading to nowhere special. However, over the last 150 years this quarter-mile lane has brought processions of mourners who brought their deceased to a country cemetery on a hill, 5.5 miles south of Renville, a site rumored to be the second highest elevation in Renville County.
The cemetery officially known as Calvary Cemetery is also known as O’Brien Cemetery (named for the O’Brien family). On June 2, 1886 John O’Brien deeded a 12-acre parcel to the Diocese of St. Paul. Two acres were set aside for the cemetery and a church, and the remainder for farmland to support the costs of maintenance. The O’Brien plot has nine graves, and includes three generations of veterans. Civil War veteran Patrick O’Brien was born in Kilkenny Ireland in 1845. In 1878, he arrived in Renville County and established a homestead in Sections 5 and 9 in Flora Township. When the railroad was sited six miles north, plans for the church were abandoned, but the consecrated ground remained as a cemetery for those of the Catholic faith.
Sometime between 1938 and 1947, during the pastorate of Fr. Carl Renz at Holy Redeemer in Renville, a directive came from the St. Paul Archdiocese that country cemeteries be disbanded. Because of the support for the cemetery, and the difficulties of administering the plan, the directive was withdrawn. After the establishment of the New Ulm Diocese in 1957, title to the cemetery was transferred to local control.
For many years, our family lived in the shadow of this cemetery. It is an intriguing and beautiful site, a place with an interesting history where generations of families buried their dead. Much of the history is lost, and facts available are gleaned from historical societies, historical publications, abstracts, family histories, online sources and the memory of area residents. It isn’t clear how many crosses have shadowed the cemetery that is erected on the high point of the hill just west of the cemetery. Helen Powers, whose husband’s family once lived in the area, claimed that a cross was erected between 1916 and 1920 and that her husband’s father helped put it up. This she said, was the second cross although no one remembered one prior to that date.
Sometime in the early 1930s, long before our family’s involvement with the cemetery, Patrick O’Brien, Charley Daniels and John Larkin, Sr. Flora Township pioneers, installed a cross. Helen Larkin, a daughter, remembers that Charley Daniels cut the tree from Pat O’Brien’s woodlot and that her father brought it to Lueck’s sawmill and had it cut. However, over the years, the elements took their toll and the wooden cross gradually deteriorated. It was the victim of a sleet storm in April of 1975.
The Larkin, O’Brien, and Branick families, concerned with the preservation of the cemetery, were instrumental in the construction of a steel cross to replace the fallen one. On August 2, 1975, a small group of the Larkin and Branick families hoisted the cross into position. After three months, Calvary Cemetery was again shadowed by a 26-foot cross. A small gathering of area families joined as the new cross was blessed.
There are a number of families who have a close affinity to this place that was referred to by Fr. Dennis Noonan, who once served the Renville Parish, as “A little bit of Ireland.”
There are no records or memory that serve to document when our family became the caretakers of this piece of history. My husband Francis, more commonly known as Butch, remembered that it was Canice (Mickey) Branick and Willard O’Brien who suggested that our family assume responsibility of caring for the cemetery. Our son Patrick said he remembered mowing. “One thing I remember is that it was before we had gas powered or cordless string trimmers, so I remember using a hand trimmer around the tombstones which was very tedious. We brought several riding mowers to get it done quickly.”
Daughter Laura was a little more graphic.
“I mowed Calvary Cemetery over and over and over and over again. In later years I learned to back the truck into the ditch and drive the little Snapper mower off and mow and mow and mow. I recall all five of us going there together before Memorial Day, 4th of July and Labor Day, to mow together. Dad would use the weed whip to get close to the graves. Perhaps Patrick did too. I was a part of the effort when I was very young until I graduated from high school.”
Mary, who clearly did not see the historical aspect of this adventure recalled “vague memories of mowing.” As a teenager, Mary probably saw little drama or excitement in the effort.
The truth is, our family mowed this site so many times that it became almost second nature to acknowledge those who lay buried there. There are literally “neighborhoods.” There are 16 Branick and nine Powers graves. The Foster family site snuggles up to the evergreens on the south side of the cemetery, and a number of Larkins also claim tenure.
While much history is lost, family histories relate fascinating stories, if one takes the time to seek them out. It is told that Bridget Branick and her son Michael and his wife Catherine Martin Branick walked from Canada to Renville in the middle 1800s and claimed Calvary Cemetery as their final resting place. The oldest marker is that of James T. Branick, who died in 1873.
Some grave markers are very simple, while others such as the Quigley stone are ornate. Bartholomew Quigley, known as Bartlett, who was born in 1832 in Ireland, arrived in New York in 1854. While living in New York he married Catherine Cumiski, later registering to serve in the Civil War in 1863. The family, now with four children is listed in the 1875 census as residents of Flora Township. One of the children, 21-year-old Edward, died in March of 1886, and his burial place is marked with an impressive stone. Bartlett’s passing is marked by the same stone. No other Quigley family members are buried at Calvary. The burial site of Catherine Quigley, who moved to Duluth, is unknown.
The body of Agnes McKinley, originally buried at Calvary, was removed and re-buried in the Fairview Cemetery in Renville.
A survey of the graves reveals that not all deaths are the elderly, as there are many children. A small stone in the Larkin section merely says “Kate.” Larkin family records record that Catrine Larkin was born June 27, 1875 and died 3 days later. T.A. Grench was born and died on June 29, 1894. Engraved monuments don’t tell the stories of the death of teenagers Leo Powers and William H. Foster. More recent deaths are of Michael Branick who died in a tractor related accident at 12 years of age in 1963. Not all burials involve Irish. The stone marking the grave of Sergio Turrubiates, Sr., who died in an accident in 1993, is decorated in the Mexican tradition of many flowers and representations of loving memory. Sergio was married to Tammy Paradee whose father and grandparents lie in the Paradee gravesite.
Many interments are not marked, nor are there records of them. Sam Smith, who digs graves for Calvary burials, has more than once had to change the site of a new grave, having found the remnants of an earlier burial. Clearly, there are many unmarked burials on the two-acre tract.
From year-to-year work on the cemetery continues, as evergreen branches are trimmed and tombstones are repaired, now with just a two-person crew.
Janelle Miller Wertish’s family home was just a mile from the site. As she grew up, she loved seeing the tall cross from the window of her room. Janelle died of cancer on July 17, 2009. She was buried near the top of the hill, at the foot of the cross that she loved.
For generations of early settlers to the present time, victims of the maladies of old age, disease, and accident, all remain at rest in the serene setting.