This stone sentinel has watched over 400 children since 1930
I vividly remember the first time I ever laid eyes on the Angel that stands sentry over hundreds of children buried at St. Mary's Cemetery.
It wasn’t long after the funeral of my beloved Nana, who passed away during the Thanksgiving holiday of 1977.
The following spring, I rode my bike from Parkway Drive over to the cemetery to visit her grave site.
Looking back, I’m fairly certain this was my first-ever solo trip. And, to be honest I have no recollection of what prompted me to go on this particular day.
To that point in my young life, cemeteries held absolutely no interest for me. However, on the heels of Nana’s death, something changed. The older I got, the more I took notice of them and the more my fascination grew.
St. Mary's and Glen Dyberry became two of my favorite destinations.
There wasn't anything morbid about it. I wasn't wearing black clothing, brooding on death or anything like that.
No, I just enjoy the peace and quiet. Walking along the well-manicured paths amid the thousands of monuments, my surging emotions calm and my mind clears.
There's a comforting sense of connection with previous generations here.
It seems to me that, if you listen closely enough, you might hear the wisdom of the ages … maybe even discern the answer to whatever problem happens to be troubling you on a given day.
In the beginning, there was a clear disconnect for a young lad mourning the loss of a woman who’d taught him to read and play dominoes.
I simply could not understand what a plot of grass and a small marble stone had to do with my beloved Nana.
To some extent, that confusion remains to this day. The logical part of me understands that the body mouldering six feet under my feet isn't her … has almost nothing to do with her. And yet, when I visit the grave, there's an undeniable feeling that I'm somehow closer to her than anywhere else.
I don't pretend to have the answers to these age-old dilemmas, but I do like to contemplate them every once in awhile.
Anyway, as most of you know, I'm a creature of habit. I eat the same food, drink the same soda, root for the same teams … and, I follow the same course each time I visit St. Mary's.
I spend a few minutes with Aunt Betty, Father Fricker and “Bull” McGinnis. Then, I visit the graves of my grandparents.
There, I kneel down and say a little prayer before heading back toward the entrance and my final destination: The Angel.
There are quite literally hundreds of striking monuments in St. Mary's Cemetery.
However, there's one which captured my imagination as a child … and did the same with my daughter decades later.
It's a beautifully sculpted angel with outspread wings.
Her right arm is raised heavenward, but her eyes are downcast … gaze fixed on two smaller statues at her feet … a child and a lamb. She appears to be reaching for them, perhaps to lend comfort.
The symbolism is powerful. This angel has been sent to stand silent vigil over the site. Her presence provides a link between Heaven above and suffering children below.
My daughter always visited her when we walked or biked along the path. She's always been tender-hearted and empathetic, the kind of child who'd pick a bouquet of wildflowers and place them on the mound.
But, why is she here?
And why is there such an odd burial plot (the only one of its kind) right in the middle of this cemetery?
A plaque, which was placed on the side of this mound on the day of its dedication, November 2, 1930, gives us a hint.
It reads: “To the memory of the four hundred children of St. Mary Magdalen Parish buried in this plot.”
It's mind boggling even to contemplate … 400 little ones interred here?
Years ago, I did some research and discovered that the vast majority of children in this mound reportedly died of influenza.
While the worst year on record by far was 1918, the flu claimed thousands of young victims every year during the first two decades of the 20th century.
In 1918 alone, more than 675,000 Americans died of the strain that became known as “Spanish Flu.” In Pennsylvania's two largest cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, nearly 20,000 people passed away.
Hence, it's not hard to imagine that 400 local children could have fallen victim to this epidemic and ended up here.
As a dad and now a grandfather, it's a chilling thought. I can't even imagine all the despairing parents who must have visited this site over the years, seeking some kind of peace beneath the gaze of this guardian Angel.
Sadly, the Angel was very nearly destroyed last month when all those terrible storms ripped through Wayne County.
Trees were uprooted all over the cemetery, several of which came crashing down on and around the children's burial mound.
The Angel lost an arm, had one complete wing an part of the other knocked off. It's a heartbreaking sight … one that makes me entertain some dark and difficult thoughts.
It seems to me that with each passing generation, concern and respect for our ancestors diminishes.
Just a cursory examination of many local cemeteries will provide all the proof you need.
Headstones are crumbling. Monuments are neglected. Walking paths that were once pristine are overgrown with weeds. Not all of them, mind you, but enough to make one pause and ponder just what exactly has changed.
So, why should we care?
In this so-called post modern age, is it really such a tragedy that some decades old monuments were damaged? My answer to that is a resounding “Yes!”
The Angel provides a much-needed link between the present and the past. She's a reminder that love and hate, triumph and tragedy, span the generations.
They unite us with those who came before. They're also a poignant reminder that we're all mortal and one day we, too, will be laid to rest under the watchful eyes of stone angels.
So, here's hoping that the community continues coming together to clean up the chaos the storm left in its wake.
Perhaps one day soon I'll be able to walk through St. Mary's with my little grandsons and show them their mommy's angel ... back in her rightful place watching over the children who came before.