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Calvary Cemetery in Aurora in state of decay

Tombstones lay scattered broken disrepair Calvary Cemetery along Lake street Aurora. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

Tombstones lay scattered, broken and in disrepair at Calvary Cemetery along Lake street in Aurora. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

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the graves

Some of the notable people buried in Calvary Cemetery

Patrick Tighe “The Hermit”

Died 1918

Aurora residents knew Tighe as the eccentric man who lived alone in the decaying house on the road to Oswego. Tighe was known for occasionally wearing the heaviest of winter coats in summer, and other eccentricities.

Charles Curtin

Died 1918

Curtin drove the mail wagon for many years in Aurora. Although he was crippled in one hand, he enlisted in the Army during World War I. He caught the Spanish flu, then pneumonia, and died in camp.

Johanna McCormick

Died 1871

McCormick was murdered by John Reed, a hired hand who worked on the McCormick farm. McCormick turned Reed down for a date, so he shoved a shotgun through the window and fired. She died instantly.

Sgt. Patrick Dowd

Died 1919

Dowd enlisted in the Army at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War and served continuously for the next 21 years. He took part in nearly all of America’s big battles in France during World War I.

Phillip Ready

Died 1864

Ready died while serving in the 89th Volunteers in a Civil War battle at Marietta, Ga. Hundreds of Aurora residents attended his funeral, where cannons boomed.

Eugene Bertrand

Died 1926

After growing up in Aurora, Bertrand went on to make his name in newspapers, serving as city editor for the Denver Post, Sunday editor for the Chicago Tribune and member of the New York Post editorial team. He covered the 1890 Republican convention for the San Francisco Chronicle. His mild manner earned him the nickname “Bertie the Lamb.”

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Updated: November 1, 2012 6:03AM

In October of 1865, Timothy Crimmin’s family chose a beautiful, remote place for his final rest.

The 53-year-old was buried at Calvary Cemetery, a relatively new burial spot outside Aurora city limits. More than two miles north of downtown, the cemetery grounds must have had a stunning view of acres of Illinois prairie. Crimmin’s family selected a dignified, 4-foot white headstone with “T. CRIMMIN” curling around a decorative flower.

Little is known about Timothy Crimmin. Researchers have not found an obituary that would explain his life’s work, or his dreams. But his family provided at least two meaningful clues. First, he was a dad. The top of the tombstone is inscribed with “OUR FATHER”. Second, he was important to someone: the bottom inscription is “WE LOVED HIM”. As evidence of this family bond, four years later, one of his children, 28-year-old Maggie, was buried a foot south of her father. Then, in 1880, Crimmin’s wife was buried a foot to the north. The family included, “WE LOVED HER” on Ellen’s stone.

The three headstones sat side-by-side in the two-acre cemetery, a permanent reminder of a family connection that no longer existed on Earth. And while death could not drive Timothy, Ellen and Maggie apart, a mulberry tree managed quite nicely.

It was probably about 40 years ago, when the mulberry sprouted between Timothy and Ellen’s graves at the cemetery along busy Lake Street just south of Indian Trail. A branch looking for sunlight pushed north and slowly shoved Ellen’s tombstone off its base, leaving it lying on its back, where today it is sinking into the ground. The tree is now working on Timothy’s headstone, forcing it slightly toward his daughter.

The Crimmins’ headstones are among dozens at Calvary Cemetery cracking, falling, sinking and wearing away. At least another 20 are believed lost. With no burials for more than six decades, the cemetery is one of many older, nearly abandoned burial grounds that poses a question from the dead to the living: What should be done?

Memorials to ancestors

Growing up, the route to an attic filled with junk was through a door in Mike Fichtel’s closet. As a nosy Aurora kid with nothing to do, Fichtel found the attic a rich place to explore. On one of his adventures, Fichtel found a three-ring binder filled with lists of birth and death dates for generations of his family. Fichtel traced from his own name back through his great-great grandparents.

“It sparked my interest and I haven’t looked backward since,” he said.

More accurately, Fichtel has obsessively looked backward since then.

Fichtel’s home is filled with genealogical records and shelves of short-run books about local history. As president of the Fox Valley Genealogical Society, he has dedicated years to scouring old obituaries, census records and, of course, cemeteries. Once you can read a cemetery, dead men do tell tales.

“Once you start moving (headstones) around, you do damage,” he said. “You lose information. You lose relationships among the people. ... The way people are buried tells about them. They were important to someone when they were living.”

So in 2003, when Fichtel read a story in The Beacon-News about scheduled renovations for Calvary Cemetery, he wanted to make sure the stones were photographed, recorded. He found a cemetery in terrible shape.

“I was saddened,” he said. “You have the expectation, at least in this country, that your final resting place is going to be final and it’s going to stay.”

Part of who we are

When it opened in 1856, Calvary was the only Catholic cemetery in three counties. Although it was never associated with a specific church, people traveled many miles to bury relatives on holy ground.

Early on, Civil War casualties were buried there, as well as many of the area’s earliest Irish residents. But over the next two decades, more Catholic churches opened and established their own cemeteries. Burials at Calvary slowed. In April 1946, 84-year-old Ellen Victor was buried at Calvary Cemetery. No one else has been buried there since.

Today, Calvary is a funny little place. There are graves within a few feet of Lake Street, a main route between downtown Aurora and Interstate 88. The only parking is at either at Long John Silver’s to the north of the cemetery grounds, or at Nikarry’s restaurant to the south. Aside from a few American flags, there are no signs of mourners. In the back of the lot, there are tire tracks — evidence of someone dumping landscape fill. Dirt and debris are heaped at the edge of a ravine east of cemetery.

In 2006, Fichtel counted 209 gravesites in the cemetery. Even then, they knew that more than 20 were missing. During a recent walk through the cemetery, just 155 were obviously visible. Of those, 67 were broken or knocked over.

Gravestones are quite literally scattered throughout the site. One is stuck in a tree, others have tumbled and disassembeled. At some point, someone tried to put a few back together, leaving an upright stone on the bottom, followed by a sideways stone, then another upright stone, like a toddler’s first effort to stack blocks. Some graves have been overtaken by the wilderness. The stone for Felicia George, who died in 1896 of old age and bowel trouble, is hidden deep in bushes on the north side.

There are, of course, a few vodka bottles and beer cans, but the Rockford Diocese — and the lack of parking — keep the grounds clear of most litter. The diocese pays members of Sacred Heart Church to cut the grass and trim shrubs, according to Carol Giambalvo, director of cemeteries for the diocese.

Currently, the diocese’s policy is not to intervene with graves unless they become a safety hazard. The gravesites still belong to the family and the land is considered sacred ground, a home for a body that was once the Holy Temple. For that reason, Giambalvo said the cemetery will never be closed or plowed over.

“Cemeteries are important to who we are,” Giambalvo said. “We need to grieve, we need a place to grieve, we need a place to remember. We are not just who we are. We are all who came before us.

“Calvary Cemetery reminds people of the yesterdays of Aurora,” she said. “And with some help, they can remember a little better.”

‘Never see it again’

Our relationship with cemeteries is complicated. We both demand that headstones be cherished, while ignoring them for years. We’re rightfully outraged when a headstone is desecrated, but what about when it simply disintegrates? What is our obligation to people we’ve never known?

The controversy at Burr Oak Cemetery in Cook County — where as many as 300 graves were dug up so the plots could be resold — focused the public’s outrage on people who appear to be swindlers and disrespectful of the dead.

But there was hardly a peep when a church decided to bury the headstones at Copenhagen Cemetery near Skylane Drive in Naperville 15 years ago. The cemetery was overgrown and filled with broken headstones. The last burial there was in 1920. Once houses started to creep closer, the cemetery was a casualty. The Fox Valley Genealogical Society recorded as many graves as were readable, and compiled them in a book.

In July 1997, the headstones were buried in a corner of the cemetery and a single marker was put up to honor the “pioneer families.” Today, the area looks like a park.

“It’s gone now,” Fichtel said. “You’ll never see it again. The only memories are in this book.”

Nothing lasts forever, not even granite. When Copenhagen Cemetery was plowed over, even Fichtel admitted it was probably for the best. A monument to the dead cannot become a safety hazard to the living. But Fichtel said there is still something tragic when a man’s last stamp on the Earth disappears.

In the southeast corner of Calvary Cemetery, there is a 1-foot cube that has no markings at all. It sits alone, separated from its original intent. It leaves us to wonder: when a grave becomes a stone, what has been lost?

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