Who are you? Two Cincinnati burial grounds are so old as to be steeped in both history and mystery

St. Francis Seraph, Pioneer Cemetery hold secrets

CINCINNATI -- A single white candle burns beneath a crucifix in a simple stone room. A plaque to the left of the small altar reads, “This Shrine is dedicated to our brothers and sisters who have gone before us marked with the sign of the faith and are now at rest.” 

As you stoop to go through the small door on the right, a gravestone features a poem with a similar sentiment. It reads “Remember friend, as you pass by; As you are now, so once was I; As I am now, so you must be; Prepare for death and follow me.”

The crypt underneath St. Francis Seraph Church has been part of the Cincinnati Underground tour for a while, yet not many people know the significance of the people who are buried there.

In 1817, a group of Irish immigrants met at the home of Michael Scott to talk about establishing the first Catholic parish in the area. Two years later, without a priest or even a diocese, the first Catholic church in the greater Cincinnati area was erected just outside the city limits. 

“It was just a little wooden frame building,” said Brother Tim Sucher, pastoral associate at St. Francis Seraph Church. “The interesting thing is that they didn’t have a priest. The people just gathered together. It’s kind of like the old saying, ‘If you build it, they will come.’”

The oldest gravestone in Pioneer Memorial Cemetery belongs to Phebe Stites, who died in 1797.

In fact, the first priest to preside over Christ Church was the Rev. Edward Fenwick, who would later become the first bishop of Cincinnati. This small but dedicated community of Catholics also designated the first Catholic cemetery in Greater Cincinnati.

The parishioners decided to move the church into the city in 1822 -- literally. The little church was lifted from its foundation and rolled on timbers along the cobblestone streets to its desired address, the corner of Eighth and Sycamore. Despite their efforts, the structure didn’t make the bumpy journey, and the church was rebuilt on the Downtown site. 

The cemetery remained in its location on Liberty Street for 40 years. In 1840, another Catholic church in Over-the-Rhine named St. John the Baptist found itself squeezed for space by the recent influx of German immigrants. The community decided it needed to build a similarly sized church nearby; however, the cemetery was in the location they wanted.

“They attempted to contact loved ones who were buried here with the idea that they would move them to other cemeteries,” said Sucher. “And some people did do that. However, there was a group of people who thought it would be a great honor for their loved ones to be buried beneath the altar of this new church.”

On Dec. 18, 1859, St. Francis Seraph Church was dedicated and with it, the underground crypt. Approximately 41 people from the Christ Church parish rest beneath the sanctuary of St. Francis. 

“There could be more,” said Sucher. “We had some UC students in archaeology come down and turn over a few stones. So it’s possible there could be more.”

Four years ago, the Sons of the American Revolution discovered that one of the people buried in the crypt was a Revolutionary War veteran with a rather interesting story.

“Joe Green was a prisoner of war. He was kept on a prison ship and transferred back to England,” said Sucher. “He, along with a few others, escaped and wandered their way through Spain and Portugal. Eventually he made his way back here to the United States, found his way here, settled down and lived his life.”

Green is the only example of someone in the crypt whose history is known. 

“People have done research trying to find out more on who these people were. Unfortunately, in that time, no records were kept,” said Sucher. “I think it would be fabulous if we had some idea who these people were.”

Though the histories of the people buried in St. Francis Seraph’s crypt may be missing for now, there’s another cemetery in our city filled with stories from centuries ago.

The gravestone of Mary Frantz has a sobering message for visitors to the St. Francis crypt.

The Pioneer Memorial Cemetery in Columbia-Tusculum is the oldest cemetery in Cincinnati. Vicki Newell is the volunteer librarian at the Bettman Library, which contains many of the stories and articles attached to the cemetery.

“According to the articles, the oldest stone is dated 1797,” said Newell. “It’s probable that burials began as early as 1790, as the area was settled in 1788.”

The cemetery was originally known as Columbia Baptist Cemetery and belonged to Columbia Baptist Church, the first church in this area and the first Protestant church in the Northwest Territory. 

Though the actual number of people buried in Pioneer Memorial Cemetery is unknown, there are 134 counted stones. Among the notable Cincinnatians buried there are Benjamin Stites, the leader of the group who settled the area known as "Columbia" before Cincinnati was founded. A number of Revolutionary and Civil War veterans have also found their final resting place there.

“William Brown, a Revolutionary War hero and recipient of the Badge of Military Merit, is buried there, though there is no marker and the grave location is unknown,” said Newell.

Despite the significance of the cemetery, the site was not always treated with the reverence with which it had been dedicated. In 1970, Ruth Engelken wrote an article titled "Pioneer Spirits" for The Enquirer Magazine that detailed the struggles faced by the cemetery.

Like the St. Francis crypt, the cemetery’s location was once threatened by the construction of newer, progressive structures.

“A seldom-visited, often-forgotten cemetery was threatened recently by the rerouting of Columbia Parkway,” wrote Engelken. “Plans approved by City Council call for the parking lot of Pioneer Cemetery opposite Lunken Airport to be abolished but the graves of Cincinnati’s pioneers will rest in peace -- though in the shadows of the path of progress.”

The St. Francis crypt has the added benefit of being indoors, which preserves the gravestones from the elements and human interference. However, the Pioneer Memorial Cemetery fell into disrepair over the years and was targeted by vandals who toppled the gravestones.

“For many years, memorial services were held in the cemetery on Decoration Day, but during World War II, the graveyard was all but forgotten,” wrote Engelken. “After vandals struck the cemetery in 1961, citizens made a concerted effort to remedy the damage.”

Led by park board director Fred Payne, the restoration of Pioneer Memorial Cemetery began in 1964. In an article Payne wrote for The World of Cincinnati Parks, Payne described the steps taken to restore the graveyard. Stones were examined, repaired and reattached to their bases. A coat of silicone was applied to help the stones better withstand the weather, and lighting was installed to deter vandals.

Newell said people still visit Pioneer Memorial Cemetery for its beauty and tranquility.

Years after the restoration, Payne was quoted in the Cincinnati Enquirer: “There is a lot history here. A lot of sadness, but it is quiet and beautiful.”

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