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Life on the Corner: St. Michael’s Cemetery [Part II]

For fifty years, St. Michael’s Cemetery permitted Italians to erect tremendously elaborate monuments to memorialize their dead. Many of these were carved by Italian craftsmen who emigrated to work in the quarries in Barre, Vermont. The monuments pictured in this article were all carved by hand and it would be almost impossible to duplicate them today. These days, grave markers are made using computers and lasers. The artists and craftsmen capable of producing the monuments in St. Michael’s Cemetery are long gone.

The Archdiocese stopped allowing this in the 1950’s and limited the size and style of grave markers. Apparently, the Church hierarchy wanted to curb what they considered decorative excesses and make Catholic cemeteries resemble their Protestant counterparts. It was almost as if they wanted Italians to become Unitarians.

You may find the gravestone pictures strange but please realize you are looking at them through a twenty-first century lens. In our grandparents time having an impressive gravestone gave one elevated status in the community and was an expression of how successful a family had become. In their world, spending several years, or a lifetime’s, income to erect a grave monument was a perfectly rational and reasonable endeavor. The graves of the dead were well tended and often visited. On Sundays whole families would go out to St. Michael’s, bring a lunch and greet their friends and neighbors.

I drove my grandmother, nonna Colomba, to St. Michael’s many times before she died. We would start the day by visiting my grandfather, Vito’s, grave. She would plant some hopeful geraniums, water them and pull out some weeds. Dandelion greens would be saved for a salad that evening. After that she would bring me through the oldest section of the cemetery where many of her friends were buried. At each grave she would stop, say a prayer, and tell stories about the person buried there. She knew they were dead but in a special way telling their stories kept them alive in her memory.

A few weeks ago on a beautiful New England Sunday afternoon I brought my grandson out to Forest Hills in Jamaica plain to visit St. Michael’s. I hadn’t been there in many years and I was curious to see if it had changed. In fact, it had.  The graves and monuments were still there and I was surprised I remembered so many of them. Seventy five years ago there would have been scores of families visiting graves at St. Michael’s Cemetery. On this perfect Sunday afternoon in May my grandson and I were the only people there. How times have changed.

Catch up with Part I of this story.

Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.

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6 Replies to “Life on the Corner: St. Michael’s Cemetery [Part II]

  1. Nick, Oh have they changed, including the North End where we grew up, keep up the great work.

    Thanks Bobby Church

  2. Thank you for all of your beautiful stories. I grew up in the north end in the 60’s-90’s and allways love any old stories of the old north end.
    Frankie

  3. Dear Nicholas, Anthony Amendolia was my father’s first cousin. He perished in World War II, and, according to family lore, his mother, zia Maria, was so distraught that she took the proceeds from his life insurance policy and commissioned an Italian sculptor–providing him with a photograph–to create the life-size statue memorializing him. I have begun an extensive research project on St. Michael and would very much like to hear more stories like these from others and, above all, to speak with you personally.
    Richard Bonanno
    Assumption College

  4. Hi Nick – thank you for sharing these lovely photos and memories. All of my grandparents are interred at St. Michael’s, and my maiden name is the same as yours, DelloRusso 🙂 My mother’s family are the Giorgianni’s from the North End, and my father’s family is from East Boston. Best regards, Analisa

  5. A follow-up from a recent West Ender article:

    Lisa (Cassaro) DiRado sent in a piece about her great uncle Peter whose tombstone is shown in this post. He was the young boy who drowned and that incident is carved into his tombstone. His family owned a bakery at 37 South Margin St. in the West End.

    From the Boston Daily Record, Thursday June 5, 1930.

    Floral Canoe at Buriel of Drowned Pair

    A floral canoe, symbolic of the craft whose over turn caused their death by drowning, was borne at the head of the double funeral procession of Samuel Saracino and Peter Cassaro, 15, through the thronged streets of the North End yesterday.

    All traffic halted in the district as the cortege winded its way to Sacred Heart Church in North Square. Hundreds of mourners marched behind the hearse and 300 motor cars, 11 of which carried flowers.

    Two bands played funeral dirges as the two boys, drowned in a Sharon lake when their canoe overturned last Sunday, were borne to rest.

    Many children, former playmates of the victims, and their parents, joined the procession as it wound through the narrow streets.
    James D’Agostino, 16, of Willard Street, who was a third occupant of the canoe and who narrowly escaped drowning, was one of the marchers.

    Touching scenes were enacted about the Cassaro home on South Margin St. where his mother, father and brothers hysterically cried, “Pietro; Pietro;”as the boy’s coffin, too long for the narrow stairs, was lowered from a fourth story window.

    After the funeral ceremony both boys were buried in St. Michael’s Cemetary, Roslindale.

    Southern Italians, both in Italy and the North End, lived much of their lives in the streets sharing their joys and tragedies with their neighbors. This is characteristic of Mediterranean people in general and is reflected in their warm, generous nature.

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