Hey there! It’s your Frederick S. Upton Fellow, Alicia Risk. Every Friday, I’ll be posting a blog about something interesting going on with the museum; anything from new exhibits, weird stuff we find in our archives, or interviews with new staff members! This week, I’m gearing up for the Halloween season by getting a little spooky and talking about the history our oldest existing cemetery and mausoleum in St. Joseph.
Fellow Fridays: Spotlight on St. Joseph City Cemetery’s Mausoleum Doors
Death is not an easy thing to come to terms with, but many of us are forced to confront it in some form before we die ourselves, through the death of our loved ones. Having a physical place like a headstone or a grave to bury our grief often can help us to cope with our loss, and having a tangible memorial to the dead allows the living to begin the process of mourning our loved ones. Today’s culture associates death (and subsequently burial places/cemeteries) with “creepiness”. However, this association is a somewhat recent cultural trend in our country. Throughout history, and as recent as 100 years ago, our ancestors created and utilized beautifully constructed headstones, cemeteries, and mausoleums in memorial to their dead. These structures serve as a peaceful sanctuary to mourn loved ones who have passed, and to this day are important monuments to our cultural history.
Here in St. Joseph, we are lucky to have a unique example of these beautiful mausoleums, still standing within the St. Joseph City Cemetery boundaries. The cemetery, officially established in 1843, is the second of our original burial grounds within St. Joseph. Our first burial grounds contained the remains of the indigenous Native Americans and our earliest European settlers, and sat on top of the 100-foot bluff that overlooks the mouth of the St. Joseph River. As settlements expanded throughout the 18th century, these grounds were razed to make room for development, and no traces of these grounds still exist today. However, the City Cemetery, located a mile south of the bluff, became the 2nd burial site in St. Joseph, officially established as the village cemetery in 1849. The earliest gravesite inside the cemetery’s boundaries is marked 1823, but the majority of burials took place from the 1850’s throughout the 1960’s.
Our mausoleum, built by the Michigan Mausoleum Company in 1913, is built in the Greek Renaissance Temple style; featuring Doric columns, which support a pediment, that is marked “Saint Joseph Mausoleum”. The building is constructed of sandstone blocks, and has the following Biblical passages inscribed on either side of the doorway.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of death, I fear no evil; for Thou art with me.” Psalm 23-5.
“Boast not thyself of tomorrow: for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth.” Proverbs 27-1.
The mausoleum also features Art Nouveau style stained glass windows and doors, featuring down-turned torch motifs. The upright torch is typically a symbol for life, but when shown upside down, the symbol signifies the extinguishing of life’s flame. The other symbols seen in the beautiful stained glass include doves, willow trees, lambs, urns, and hourglasses, symbolizing peace, mourning, and the swift passage of time and life. Unfortunately, the original stained glass doors to the mausoleum are fragile and had to be replaced after 75 years of use. The new doors are compatible with the original design and do not detract from the overall aesthetic of the mausoleum. When the original doors were removed in 1992, they were put up for sale by the City of St. Joseph, but instead, gifted to the Heritage Museum after pushback from the community. They now are set into the walls near the archives, where they are kept safe from further damage, weather and vandalism.
You are welcome to view the original doors any time during museum hours, and the mausoleum is accessible to the public by appointment with the cemetery managers. Contact the City Clerk’s office at (269) 983-6325 during normal business hours to get access to the building.
However, you can see the inside of the mausoleum, and learn more about it and our historic cemetery at our Spooky St. Joe Cemetery tour, which takes place on Saturday, October 7th, with tours starting at 6:50pm! To reserve your tour time, please RSVP to the Heritage Museum at (269) 983-1191. The tours are $5 a person, and tour groups will gather at the cemetery entrance on Lakeview Avenue. Guests are advised to find street parking on LaSalle or Madison Avenues, or use the parking lot at United Way of Southwest Michigan. Tours are weather permitting; if necessary, this program may be moved to the rain back-up date of Sunday, October 8 at the same times.
I will leave you today with a passage from the poem Final Rest, written by local poet Robert Gaut, and featured in Fred Logan’s research on the Saint Joseph Mausoleum.
“There is a time when we must draw the gift of our last breath. It’s then we pass that lonely border to greet the arms of death. It is our choice to honor those who met Death’s final call. This we do in many ways including prayer for one and all. Our forbears in this place of peace bring comfort to each heir. It is for us, the living, to show our love with faithful care.”
Passage from “Final Rest” by Robert Gaut, 1995.
Thanks for reading the blog! See you next week!