Thursday, March 4, 2010

Little Miracles

I am ill today.  This is one of those classic illnesses, vicious and intense, my stomach churning like a family of badgers moved in and immediately began remodeling.  

This is somewhat unusual for me.  I don't vomit often: an important facet of My World View is that if you've taken the trouble to eat something, you hold onto it, right to the end, as it were.  I will spare you the details, Gentle Reader: suffice to say this afternoon's activities made up for several vomit-free years.

This has led me to an unassailable conclusion: Someone has poisoned me.

That's not really what I wanted to write about today.

There is a little cemetery in Tonawanda, at the corner of Main Street and Kohler Avenue.  It is the parish cemetery for St. Francis Roman Catholic Church, located on Tonawanda's Adams Street.  My mother told me that my great-grandmother, Josephine Siedlecki, was buried there.  My first stop in Buffalo (after a couple of hot dogs at Ted's Red Hots) was St. Francis Cemetery.

It is not a particularly big place, a large triangle bordered by Main, Kohler, and a line of railroad tracks.  Many of the headstones are badly worn, some have toppled over, others poke out of the ground at cockeyed angles, a crooked grin of marble and granite.  The snow was crusted, but pristine: it looked like no visitors had come to this lonely corner for many, many days.

There was no way of knowing where to start looking.  One of the first rules of family history research is that "oral history" is mostly a multi-generational game of Telephone: stories are told and retold, each teller adding some details and deleting others until you're left with something that's mostly myth.  My mother's recollection that her grandmother was buried "in that little cemetery" in Tonawanda might be completely off the mark.  There are at least four other cemeteries within a mile of St. Francis, and our people attended Our Lady of Czestochowa Parish, not St. Francis.  Saturday was cold, and wet, and snowing.  A good number of the headstones appeared to be buried under drifts.  This seemed like a fool's errand.

I said a prayer, asking for help, and entered the graveyard.  This is where the little miracle comes in.

I entered the cemetery at its back entrance, closest to the train tracks, walking in a nearly straight line, slogging through knee-deep snow drifts, for about 200 feet, where I found this:


The inscription reads, "Our Mom, Josephine Siedlecki, 1883 - 1920".  "Siedlecka" is the feminine version of "Siedlecki": when a woman marries, she takes the feminine version of her husband's name.

I took some other photos, just to give you a feel for the needle in a haystack aspect of this search:

Back home, I discovered that OLC had been founded on 3 May 1903.  The first parish hall was a white clapboard structure, rented from a local Protestant congregation:

The original OLC Church, Oliver Street, North Tonawanda.  Prior to 1922, Oliver was an unpaved road.

In 1919, a fire destroyed the church school.  The iconic red brick building, the building that still stands as the heart of North Tonawanda's Third Ward, was not completed until 9 December 1928. At the time of Josephine's death, OLC was a foundling parish in a very poor section of town.  Neither it nor the other, more established Catholic parish in North Tonawanda, Ascension, had its own cemetery.  St. Francis Cemetery would have been the nearest hallowed ground for area Catholics.  In the area where Josephine is buried, nearly every readable headstone bore a Polish surname.

Josephine was thirty-seven when she died.  She has laid in this lonely place for ninety years.  And I was led to her.  

They yearn for this, our kindred dead.  They yearn to be remembered, to be acknowledged, to be loved.  They want their stories told.

Jeffrey R. Holland teaches that we know very little of the afterlife.  The one thing we know, says Elder Holland, is that there will be families there.  The living must seek out the dead.  We have to remember.  We have to forge those welding links.  Last Saturday afternoon, I walked with my great-grandmother.

I look forward to meeting her. 

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