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A Cemetery Controversy - St. Stephen's vs. St. Mary's

Nine acres of land, extending west of Duncan and 26th Streets, were conveyed by deed November 30, 1849 by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth to the Diocese of Louisville, as recorded in the Jefferson County Deed Book 74, page 584.  cemetery lots were laid out and the first burial took place in 1851.This cemetery was first called St. Mary's later became known as St. John's.  Father John  B. Wuest in his One Hundred Years of St. Boniface Parish, Louisville, KY, page 48, makes reference to the "German Catholic Cemetery near Portland," and as late as 1869, the "Louisville City Directory" lists "St. Mary's Catholic Cemetery, W. S. 26th St. corner of Duncan."

St. Joseph Orphan Home and Society were formed in August 1849.  At that period there were two German catholic Churches in Louisville, St. Boniface and the Church of the Immaculate Conception, which was commonly called St. Mary's.  Father Charles Boeswald, pastor of St,. Mary's, was the first president of the orphan society, and we suspect was instrumental in the purchase of the property at 26th and Duncan for a German cemetery.  It is interesting to note that at his death in November, 1855, he was laid to rest in that cemetery.  It should be observed that interments in this burying ground were reserved at first in the section then developed for those of German descent.

Available records of burial in St. Mary-St. John Cemetery are to be found in the catholic Cemeteries Office at Calvary Cemetery.

There is an unsavory connection between this first German Catholic burying ground and St. Stephen's Cemetery.  Opposition to St. Mary's quickly arose, perhaps even before the first burial, by a rebellious faction in St. Boniface parish.  The cause is not certain.  The "malcontents" alleged they wanted a cemetery where the poor could be buried free of cost.  Perhaps it was the location of the cemetery or its management.  Maybe it was spirit of jealousy against the newly formed St. Mary's parish and its pastor.  In any case, Father Wuest, in the history cited above, pages 48-50, has a lengthy account of the affair.  His excellent book, printed in 1937, is now out of print and becoming very rare, so we paraphrase his detailed explanation of it as follows:

The spirit of rebellion came to a head in 1851.  A group of men, the St. Boniface Benevolent Society had formed an organization and had bought a piece of property for the purpose, as they alleged, of burying poor people free of charge.  This, they said, was a necessity since a fee of six dollars was demanded for the interment in the German Catholic Cemetery then located near the section of Louisville called Portland.

The officers of the society wished to be independent of the ecclesiastical control and had formed an independent corporation refusing to give the deed of the property to the Bishop of the diocese.  Accordingly, Bishop Spaulding and Father Otto {Tair, the pastor of St. Boniface} refused to consecrate the new burial grounds, known as St. Stephen's Cemetery, unless the deed was duly surrendered to ecclesiastical authorities.

Turbulent scenes and demonstrations followed.  On September 12, 1851, a crowd of some six hundred gathered in front of St. Boniface Church, and considering the excitement and high tension, could have easily been led to excesses.  The wrath of the members of the society was leveled especially at Mr. Goss, who preferred yet another site for cemetery purposes, the present St. Michael's Cemetery, and who was accused of inciting the Bishop against the society.  The members refused unanimously to hand over the deed, which, they said, would mean the end of all free burials of the poor.

As was to be expected, some of the parishioners took sides with the rebellious faction, and a divided parish resulted.  Even some of the trustees of the church cast their lot with the malcontents, tainted, undoubtedly, with some of the radical spirit rampant among the Forty-Eighters, revolutionary refugees from Germany.  Those trustees, who went over to the disobedient society were deposed by the Bishop, and new ones appointed in their stead.  This was a cause of a new deedifying scene.  On the Sunday following the appointment of their successors, during the course of the services, words were exchanged in the church itself between the new and the deposed trustees that turned into a brawl.  A charge of disturbing church services was brought against the discontents, but was later dismissed.

The cemetery was placed under interdict and the Catholics threatened by the Bishop with ecclesiastical censure if they permitted any of the faithful to be buried there.  the first to be interred was Peter N. Lorenz, a school teacher.  On Sunday, October 19, 1851, his remains were borne to the cemetery by a vast concourse of people, estimated at three thousand, not al necessarily Catholics, but all infected with the rebellious spirit of the radical German element in Louisville.  Since no Catholic priest could be had, the president and secretary of the society conducted the funeral services and held discourses.
The society was later known as the St. Stephen's Cemetery Society and when on October 17, 1852, it celebrated its first anniversary by a pilgrimage to the interdicted burial grounds, it numbered one hundred and forty members.  It still existed twenty years later and the cemetery can still be seen on South Preston and Rawlings Street.

- This history provided by Janis Fowler -

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