Parishioners launch effort for Calvary Cemetery upkeep

Families, volunteers joining to provide maintenance for historic East Knoxville burial site

By Dan McWilliams

Calvary Cemetery has been the final resting place for Knoxville’s Catholic families and diocesan priests for 146 years, and as the graveyard nears capacity the focus is beginning to turn to a perpetual-care fund that will maintain the property long after the last burial is held.

Fourteen years after Immaculate Conception Parish in downtown Knoxville was established in 1855, property was purchased on what was then Vine Avenue for a cemetery. The first use of Calvary Cemetery was in about March 1869 for the burial of a child of Daniel Kay, writes Robert A. Mc-Ginnis in Rest in Peace: A Record of the Interments of Calvary Cemetery, published in 2000. The property was later purchased July 3, 1869, from the Bell and Blang heirs and consists of approximately six acres, according to the McGinnis book. The cemetery predates Immaculate Conception’s current church building by 17 years.

Calvary Cemetery currently looks good for its age: the grass is mowed, weeds are trimmed, and leaves have been raked. Immaculate Conception Parish maintains the cemetery, located at 2000 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave., formerly Vine Avenue.

Father Ron Franco, CSP, pastor of Immaculate
Conception Church, leads a procession in blessing
Calvary Cemetery during a Memorial Day Mass on May 25.

“The cemetery goes back to 1869, when Immaculate Conception was the only Catholic church in Knoxville and the cemetery was established,” said IC pastor Father Ron Franco, CSP.

“The land was purchased and the first burials were made there, and we’ve been burying people there continually ever since. We maintain the cemetery.

“We’ve struggled a little bit because of course it’s a small cemetery, and as the number of available graves diminishes, the income diminishes.

That’s why we’ve been building up a perpetual-care fund to be able to maintain the cemetery even down the road when there are no more graves to sell.”

IC parishioner Mary Catherine Willard heads up a cemetery committee that oversees the upkeep of the property. She remembers that at the time when her husband, George, died Nov. 6, 2013, the cemetery “needed help.”

“All of the shrubs had grown up, and some even covered the markers for people,” she said. “Both of the fence lines were covered with weeds and vines.

There were a lot of leaves up against the fences. It had been going on for a while.

“I asked Father Ron if I could take over the cemetery and try to get some volunteers to work out there to help get it back in order, and that’s what I’ve done.”

Mrs. Willard calls her group the “Calvary Cemetery Restoration Committee.”

“It’s got people on there who know something about cemeteries,” she said.

Committee members include Father Franco, David Wolf, David Dunn, Martin Bartling, Greg O’Connor, Larry DeWine, Sue Greer, Carol Sheridan, Beth Wolf, and Maggie Costigan.

“David Wolf told me about a cemetery up in Pennsylvania that [wife] Roseann’s parents had been buried in that was almost going to rack and ruin because nobody was taking care of it,” Mrs. Willard said. “The problem out there at Calvary is, a lot of the people buried there, their families have moved away from Knoxville and they’re no longer here in Knoxville.”

Mr. DeWine said the cemetery once “was sort of run down, but they’ve really done a nice job. It looks good right now. It’s in well-kept order, and there’s a plan to keep that up. One of the things you get is Scout groups or school groups that have to do service-club work. Of course, anytime you get Mary Catherine behind something, she’s going to push it.”

The committee is “spending some money out there to re-anchor and reset a lot of the stone monuments that through the years have fallen or sunk,” Mr. DeWine said.

The perpetual-care fund has helped cover the costs of redoing the Stations of the Cross at Calvary Cemetery.

The Stations, formerly cracked and water-damaged, have been repainted and sealed.

“My brother-in-law, Pat Hurley, and his wife and some of the members of their class from Catholic High came out there, and they have redone all of the Stations, and I got a donation that covered that,” Mrs. Willard said.

Father Franco said the “committee works very hard to oversee the cemetery,” citing the work on the Stations.

“We hope to be replacing the roof of the little shed there soon,” he said. “We’re working on fixing some of the stones. We’ve removed some of the growth, some of the vegetation that’s been problematic.”

Mrs. Willard said there have been almost 3,000 people buried in Calvary Cemetery. The perpetual-care fund becomes important now as the space has dwindled to about 80 to 90 burial plots available, Father Franco said.

“Most of the sections in the cemetery are full,” Mr. DeWine said. “Now I’m talking about coffin graves here, but there are only a couple of sections that still have lots in them.”

Mrs. Willard encouraged people interested in the upkeep of the cemetery to volunteer for a workday that is held from 10 a.m. to noon on the second Saturday of each month.

“People can come and either work on their own family plot, or they can just rake leaves or clear the drive,” she said.

Three events at Calvary help bring attention to the cemetery. Up next is the annual rosary held every first Sunday in November at 2 p.m.

“That rosary is said for all those who have been buried in the cemetery, and we recite the names of those who were buried this past year,” Father Franco said.

Stations of the Cross are held at Calvary on Good Friday, and starting with the one earlier this year a Mass is celebrated there on Memorial Day.

“We’ve been putting together ways to utilize the cemetery,” Mr. DeWine said. “I salute Father Ron because he’s been very willing to suggest ideas and ways to use it for things. We had a nice Mass out there on Memorial Day and hope to make that an annual thing.”

Mr. DeWine said he grew up relative to Calvary Cemetery “always being out there.” He attended the old St. Mary School next-door to IC.

“When I was growing up as a student at St. Mary’s School, I was a first-grader at St. Mary’s in 1947 and finished there and went to Catholic High in 1955. I was an altar server for many of the years I was down there, from the fourth grade into high school, and served a lot of funerals. We used to get excited about it. We’d get out of school because Father Murray would call Sister and say, ‘I need some altar boys.’”

Calvary Cemetery has another important meaning to Mr. DeWine and wife Kathy.

“That’s where we’ll be buried,” he said. “It’s always had a nice touch to the point that it was Church land or blessed property.”

Mr. DeWine speculated on whether the diocese might acquire land for another cemetery in West Knoxville somewhere between Sacred Heart Cathedral Parish and St. John Neumann Parish in Farragut.

“It would be an interesting concept to think about what would a Catholic cemetery situated between Sacred Heart and John Neumann look like,” he said.

IC and Holy Ghost were Knoxville’s only Catholic parishes for much of the 20th century until Sacred Heart was established in 1956. Calvary Cemetery’s graves represent “overwhelmingly old Catholic families, IC and Holy Ghost families,” Mr. DeWine said.

“Those families used it equally and exclusively.”

He added that people from Knox County’s’ newer Catholic parishes St. John Neumann, All Saints, and St. Albert the Great are “not inclined to even know [Calvary Cemetery] exists and have never been in it. I suspect there’s a lot of people in this community who don’t even know that place exists.”

One fact that might encourage people to purchase a plot in Calvary, Mr. DeWine said, is that they “are about half of what they cost in the public cemeteries.”

To donate to the Calvary Cemetery Perpetual Care Fund, call IC at 865-522-1508, or write a check to Immaculate Conception and specify the cemetery fund and mail it to IC at 414 W. Vine Ave., Knoxville, TN 37902-1327.

“That [fund] is the only thing that’s going to keep the cemetery going after they stop having burials,” Mrs. Willard said.

Mr. DeWine agreed with her assessment.

“It’ll come to a point in time in which it will generate no revenue in or expenses out except for the upkeep of the grounds, because once it fills up, that’s it,” he said.

Mrs. Willard’s committee “put together a mailing list that we sent out last year at the first of November,” she said.

“We’ll be sending another mailing this year to people who have family members buried there in the cemetery and ask them to help us with the maintenance costs,” she said.

Calvary is one of two Catholic cemeteries in the Diocese of Knoxville. The other, Mount Olivet, is located at 4159 Ringgold Road in Chattanooga.

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