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First tour of historic St. Mary’s Cemetery

If you didn’t like the subject of history as a student, a tour of historic St. Mary’s Cemetery might change your mind. What makes the difference is tour guide and historian Bobbie Scott’s belief that “everyone has a story” – and Bobbie’s stories are compelling and well researched.

On a sunny, breezy afternoon in late August and again the next morning, more than 30 people attended the first tours at St. Mary’s Cemetery in south Minneapolis. Bobbie carried several maps and a thick three-ring binder filled with copies of obituaries and enlarged photos as she related stories of just a few of the more than 65,000 people buried at the 60-acre cemetery.

Cemetery origins

Starting from conversations with operations manager, Jon Louris, supplemented by several walks around the cemetery, Bobbie then dug into internet sources to learn about the “regular and notable” people buried at St. Mary’s. During the tours, most guests chose to walk, although a van carried a few passengers to the first destination Bobbie selected—that of the Kelly mausoleum.

Brothers John and Anthony came to Minnesota in the 1850s and owned and operated grocery stores that expanded to become a successful wholesale operation.

A story that may be “partly true” is that Anthony Kelly bought a 20-acre farm on Chicago Avenue in the 1870s. Because neighbors didn’t want a cemetery near their property, a priest arranged for a trade that resulted in the current location of St. Mary’s Cemetery, although Bobbie acknowledged that the “early history of St. Mary’s is a little bit murky.” She also learned that the original entrance was on Elliot Avenue and that the cemetery was enlarged in 1904, a fact she gleaned from letters in which Archbishop John Ireland described dedicating the addition.

On a map from the 1890s, St. Mary’s was then identified as Immaculate Conception Cemetery. Bobbie explained that the first Catholic Church in Minneapolis was called Shed Church, which was renamed as Church of the Immaculate Conception in 1868. When it became apparent that the city needed a larger church, Lawrence Donaldson of the Donaldson’s Department Store family donated land on which the Basilica of St. Mary was constructed. In the early 1870s, church leaders also recognized that 13-acre St. Anthony’s Cemetery, established in 1857 on Central Avenue by St. Anthony’s Parish, “was clearly not big enough.” This decision resulted in the development of St. Mary’s Cemetery in 1873 that also established the connection between the Basilica and St. Mary’s Cemetery.

Stories of regular and notable people

Near the Kelly mausoleum, Bobbie pointed out the grave sites of Elizabeth Quinlan and Dr. James Dunn. Although Fortune magazine described Quinlan in 1936 as “the most distinguished businesswoman in the United States,” her roots were as the daughter of Irish immigrants. She clerked in department stores before starting her own store with her colleague and friend, Fred Young – the Young-Quinlan department store. Theirs was the first in Minneapolis to offer, in 1894, “ready-to-wear” women’s garments that immediately sold out.

In Bobbie’s words, Dr. James Dunn was “a really interesting guy.” He grew up in Shakopee where he graduated from school at age 16. After graduating from Winona Normal School, now Winona State University, he became an apprentice to a doctor in southern Minnesota. He moved on to study medicine at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and New York Medical Institute as well as in Austria and Germany. By the mid 1880s, Dunn held the position in Minneapolis of “city doctor.” In 1904, after delivering a professional presentation in St. Louis, he died the next day. The autopsy indicated that he suffered from heart disease.

Heritage and heartache

Dunn and Quinlan represent themes for the stories Bobbie presented – that of immigration, poverty, hard work, initiative, and lives ended by epidemics of flu, fevers, famine, tuberculosis, and unknown afflictions. Bobbie directed our attention to the nationality of the names on the grave markers. The countries of Poland, Ireland, and Germany were well represented, with more recent burials representing people from Spanish-speaking countries.

On the top of the cemetery’s highest hill is a monument to firefighters that was built in 1892. Another just like it was erected in Lakewood Cemetery. The monuments are 29 feet tall and cost $3,000 each when they were erected by the Minneapolis Fire Department Relief Association. Lists of firefighters’ names are incised on a six-sided portion of the obelisk, beginning with Cornelius Fredricks, who was killed in a mill explosion in 1881. The last name listed is that of Emmett Kaufmann who died in 2015.

Several of the grave sites on the tour were marked with a simple small, pink landscape flag. They indicated a grave for which there was no money for a marker. One such site was for Nora Sexton whose best friend was the matron at the central police station, and who made sure Nora had a burial after her death in 1896. They became acquainted during Nora’s incarcerations for vagrancy and other offenses that appeared in several newspaper articles, and that once described Nora in this manner: “Whiskey and prostitution have made her a wreck.”

Looking forward to the next tour

Due to the enthusiasm and appreciation with which the first tours of St. Mary’s Cemetery were received, The Catholic Cemeteries plans to host another tour in 2020. Historian Bobbie Scott will captivate attendees with stories focused on women, to honor the 100-year anniversary of Women’s Suffrage that marks women’s constitutional right to vote due to the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.