The history of Catholic Cemeteries in the Archdiocese of Chicago actually predates establishment of the diocese. The first Catholic cemeteries were churchyard cemeteries of parishes in existence before the diocese was formed. Some of these cemeteries, still operating today, were Catholic burial grounds twenty five years before the opening of Calvary Cemetery, the oldest diocesan cemetery, in 1859.
Pinpointing actual dates is difficult because sometimes the cemetery started while the parish was still a mission, and sometimes after the parish was formed. The first Catholic cemeteries were not in Chicago proper but in the rural regions.
Unquestionably, the oldest Catholic Cemetery is St. James, Sag Bridge, which started making burials in the early 1830’. By contrast, in the unincorporated settlement around Fort Dearborn, people were still being buried next to where they lived or in the fort cemetery.
Situated on a bluff overlooking the Des Plaines River near where Archer Avenue crosses it, St. James was predominantly settled by Irish immigrant laborers. Many of them worked on the Illinois-Michigan Canal which was started in 1830 and finished in 1848. Parts of the canal can still be seen in this part of the county.
In those days Chicago was part of the Diocese of Vincennes, and besides St. James, there were three other parishes which had cemeteries: St. Patrick, Athens (Lemont); Transfiguration, Wauconda; and St. James, New Strassburg (Sauk Village). In cemeteries like these one can find grave tablets with birthdates prior to the American Revolution.1830
First Chicago Cemeteries
After Chicago was established in 1833 an attempt was made to standardize burial practices. In 1835 a Protestant burying ground was set up near the present day intersection of Clark Street and Chicago Avenue; and a Catholic burying ground near the lake at the foot of 23rd Street. Within a decade these were abandoned because of the growth of the town. These burying grounds were closed and new ones were established "out of the city" in the Lincoln Park area.
The new Catholic burial ground was the direct predecessor of Calvary Cemetery and was located in the area presently bound by North Avenue, Burton Place, Dearborn Parkway, and State Street directly west of the present residence of the Cardinal-Archbishop. The original plat of this cemetery, containing the names of the lot holders, is one of the earliest records of Catholic families in Chicago.
The Protestant burial ground was just north of North Avenue and its former existence is evident today with the last remaining family mausoleum behind the Chicago Historical Society.
Even this proved only a stopgap measure and within a decade provisions were made for the removal of cemeteries to areas much farther out.1835
Diocese of Chicago
After the Diocese of Chicago was formed in 1844, parish cemeteries were established in St. Joseph, Wilmette; St. Patrick, Everett (Lake Forest); and St. Patrick, Mill Creek (Wadsworth).1844
Bishop Van de Velde, Bishop Quarter’s successor, bought the first forty acres of present day Calvary Cemetery in 1851 for $20.00 an acre. On All Souls Day 1859, Bishop Duggan opened the new cemetery. The news story in the Chicago Daily Democrat relates the event:
“CALVARY CEMETERY This new burial place was opened yesterday for the reception of the dead according to the prescribed forms of the Roman Catholic ritual. The Right Rev. James Duggan, Bishop of the Diocese of Chicago, with fifteen of the priests of the Diocese were present. After the solemn blessing the Bishop delivered a discourse, suited to the occasion, to a large assemblage who had gone out to be present at the ceremony.”
Calvary Cemetery is situated about two miles north of Rose Hill and within about a mile of Evanston on the Milwaukee Road. It comprises about one hundred and twenty acres beautifully situated on the Lake Shore.
In those days, a single train ran on Sunday from Chicago to Calvary and made the journey in one hour.1859
Civil War Era
The history of the Church in Chicago can be traced almost unerringly through the development of its cemeteries. The early Church was an immigrant Church. As wave after wave of immigrants arrived, church facilities, including cemeteries, were soon set up to meet their needs.
Much of the early development was national rather than geographical in character. The German Angel Guardian Orphan Society was the earliest, reflecting the arrival of many Germans to the area. Over the years they built and maintained four major cemeteries starting with St. Boniface Cemetery which, at what is now 4800 North Clark Street, was not even in the city when it was opened during the Civil War.
Similarly, the Polish Catholic community shortly thereafter built St. Adalbert Cemetery, and subsequently three additional cemeteries. After the turn of the century, Lithuanian Catholics started St. Casimir Cemetery, and the Slovak Catholic community started Our Lady of Sorrows Cemetery.1860
Turn of the Century
Shortly after the Civil War, there were only three diocesan-wide cemeteries: Calvary, which was primarily Irish; St. Boniface, primarily German; and St. Adalbert, primarily Polish. Due to population growth and movement in the diocese it shortly became an archdiocese and seven major cemeteries were established between 1885 and 1905: Mt. Olivet, St. Mary, Holy Cross, Mt. Carmel, St. Casimir, Resurrection, and St. Joseph. Mt. Carmel, although it was not a nationally oriented cemetery, became traditionally associated with the great wave of Italian immigration.1885
Early 20th Century
The period after the First World War brought major changes to the Catholic cemeteries. The oldest cemeteries were beginning to fill up and the population began to move farther out from the city proper. It was during this period that Holy Sepulchre Cemetery opened in the southwest area of the archdiocese; All Saints Cemetery in the northwest area; and Ascension Cemetery, to the north of the city, in Lake County. More significantly, for long term cemetery operations, these were the first three cemeteries to open with provision for permanent care included in the purchase price. All subsequent cemeteries had such provision, turning cemetery care into an organized operation. It was not until the 1950s however, that this concept was also extended to new purchases in the older cemeteries.
Another development that changed the appearance of the cemeteries was the introduction of a separate outer container for the casket. Variously described as a vault or gravebox depending on its construction, its increased use beginning in the 1920s eliminated the problem of sinking seen in some very old cemeteries. The use of grave boxes or their equivalents solved a major maintenance problem; the necessity of having constantly to refill sunken graves. After World War II it became mandatory to install the outer container.1920
Post World War II
Post World War II saw another stage of cemetery development and construction. New cemeteries were opened reaching farther out into the archdiocesan area. Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillside was dedicated in 1947 and later combined with Mt. Carmel Cemetery to become the largest single Catholic cemetery. Shortly thereafter the central office of the cemeteries was moved from downtown Chicago to Queen of Heaven Cemetery. Maryhill Cemetery was started as an eventual successor to St. Adalbert Cemetery. Assumption Cemetery was opened in the far southeast portion of the Archdiocese, and St. Michael the Archangel in the far northwest. At this time also, the archdiocese lost one cemetery. With the establishment of the Diocese of Joliet in 1948, Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Joliet was transferred to that see.
Renovation of older cemeteries was also begun as a major project. While preserving the heritage of the past, these cemeteries were improved by re-grading, resetting of stonework, new landscaping and related improvements which sharply cut their maintenance costs and markedly improved their appearance.
Notable changes were made in cemetery planning. While traditional areas continued to be developed, more and more new development was made following an open park type plan with cemetery-erected religious features as focal points. The catechetical role of art and architecture in the cemeteries was strengthened, cemetery maintenance became less costly and thus more effective, and cemeteries gradually moved from being undesirable but necessary entities to becoming valued neighbors to the community around them. These changes went hand-in-hand with changes in society. With greater population mobility, there was less desire to acquire a large cemetery holding for a family. Instead, the purchase of two graves became typical, and the new "shrine-type" sections appropriately followed this trend.1947
New Programs and Developments
In 1950 the cemeteries began a parish consulting program with consultants visiting over a million families, providing information on cemetery costs and regulations and encouraging the purchase of cemetery needs before death. Helped by a vigorous consumer movement that encouraged prudence and forethought in major purchases of any kind, the program has helped to make the purchase before need of cemetery space as common as purchase for immediate need.
Another change of importance was a shift in purchasing habits. A development that assisted this change was "Complete Cemetery Service," which was offered at every major Catholic cemetery. Many people wanted a modernization of purchase practices so that they did not have to make a series of different purchases at different times. The "Complete Cemetery Service" enabled a family not only to acquire the grave and its care, but also to purchase the grave box, grave marker, and to prepay the eventual interment fee, all in a single transaction. By 1980, this particular option represented 80% of all purchases made in advance of need.
Two construction developments brought great changes to the cemeteries. The first of these was the development of community mausoleums, some of them indoor and some outdoor. Started in 1954 primarily to serve a national tradition among the Italian Catholic population, the practice of aboveground burial has vastly widened. Benefits which support this practice are land conservation, aesthetics and religious architecture which can be planned, and the freedom from the uncertainties of weather and climate. By 1980, nine major Catholic cemeteries had mausoleum facilities, and crypt purchases represented 15% of space selections.1950
Probably even more significant was the construction of interment chapels, starting with the first permanent chapel at All Saints Cemetery in 1961. Families now have the option of final cemetery services conducted either at the grave or in such a chapel. Every major cemetery, as well as some of the smaller parish cemeteries, now has an interment chapel. Final services can be planned without concern for the weather. The use of such central chapels has also enabled the cemeteries to reduce fees for interment. Approximately 80% of funerals are presently conducted in interment chapels.1961
Cemetery Administration History
It was during the period from 1885 through 1905 that the beginnings of overall cemetery administration began to develop. The very first Catholic cemetery official was Mr. John Murphy, the first superintendent of Calvary Cemetery. However, as each of the cemetery groups began to develop additional cemeteries, the need was recognized for overall coordination of activities, rather than a series of unconnected individually operated cemeteries. Three major groupings of cemeteries now had taken shape. The German Catholic cemeteries, the Polish Catholic cemeteries, and the so-called diocesan cemeteries representing the balance of the Catholic population were in place. The German cemeteries received their supervision from the rector of Angel Guardian Orphanage and were particularly well served by Rev. George Eisenbacher. He came on the scene shortly after the turn of the century and managed the affairs of the cemeteries for fifty years. He was succeeded by Auxiliary Bishop Raymond Hillinger, and later by Rev. Msgr. Leo Diebold. The Polish cemeteries handled the matter of cemetery administration by the establishment of a board made up of pastors of the Polish parishes, one of whom acted as an "executive director" for the cemeteries. This role was ably performed over some fifty years by four priests: Rev. Adalbert Furman, Rev. Msgr. Thomas Bona, Rev. Msgr. John Zelezinski, and Rev. Msgr. Edward Plawinski. Concurrently, the diocesan cemeteries also created a supervising position, held by Mr. Daniel Kinsella until his death in 1919, and by his successors until the creation of the first archdiocesan director of cemeteries in 1931.
In the first seventy-five years of cemetery administration, other than the necessary ecclesiastical regulation, cemetery operation and management was primarily laissez faire. While cemeteries retained a number of controls in their various deeds and easements, they limited themselves for the most part to the Herculean task of developing fast enough to accommodate the population avalanche, and making burials at a time when only manual and animal labor were available. Considering the operating limitations, the volume of burials to be handled verged on the incredible. During the great influenza epidemic of World War I as many as seventy-five victims a day were being buried in Mt. Carmel Cemetery alone. Under these circumstances, care of graves was often left to individual families, and matters of memorialization and landscaping were generally left to the discretion of the lot holder. While a wide variety of monuments created picturesque images of cemeteries, controls were minimal, and their lack was most felt in the areas of maintenance. The first coordinated efforts at planned maintenance involved the establishment of annual care charges. Under this arrangement the cemeteries would perform certain maintenance on the subscriber’s lot. In those times, graves were purchased without any provision for care. It was expected that the families would perform this function or have someone else do it. The annual care concept was some help in alleviating the problem of maintenance, but it left only parts of the cemetery cared for. The necessity of an organized program for cemetery care and the establishment and careful financial management of a care fund became evident in later years.
While the absence of succeeding generations or the moving away of families caused some problems, in general there was a surprising continuity in family ties and family use down through the years. For example, one hundred years after St. Boniface Cemetery was established, one-third of the burials were still going into family lots that had been purchased in the first twenty years of the cemetery’s existence, and this pattern held true for nearly all of the older cemeteries.
The years of the Great Depression and World War II affected the running of cemeteries as it did everything else. Other than basic work and minimal development, progress was stifled because of economic limitations. There were two significant events during those otherwise slow years. The first archdiocesan director of cemeteries was appointed, with direct supervisory authority over the so-called diocesan cemeteries, and general policy supervision over all Catholic cemeteries. To this post Cardinal Mundelein named Rev. Samuel Lucey who served in this position from 1931 to 1934. In 1943 the cemetery workers were organized by the Service Employees International Union, becoming the first church employees to be unionized.
The most dramatic changes in cemetery management and operations took place after World War II. The chief architect of those changes was Rev. William Casey, who became archdiocesan director of cemeteries in 1934 and served until his death in 1951. The size and scope of cemeteries had grown so considerably that Father Casey determined that there must be a concurrent growth in professional cemetery management. With the approval of Cardinal Stritch, Father Casey employed the first executive director for Catholic cemeteries, Mr. George J. Klupar, who served in that position until his retirement in 1963.
Under Father Casey, and his successor, Rev. Msgr. Francis McElligott, major changes took place. The central office of the cemeteries was expanded to provide overall management, handling financial, engineering, sales, and personnel matters. Mechanization of cemeteries proceeded quickly. Over a period of time, nearly three million dollars was invested in fleet equipment, and maintenance and interment procedures were improved, sharply reducing labor costs. This enabled prices to be held at reasonable levels. The hand digging of graves virtually disappeared in the 1950s and cemetery staffs were reduced to half of their former level.
The expansion of the Archdiocesan Cemeteries to include supervision and operation of many of the parish cemeteries also took place. Starting with St. Benedict Cemetery in 1953, the next twenty-five years saw nearly two dozen such cemeteries become part of the Archdiocesan Cemeteries. Each of these was initiated by the parish involved and was generally triggered by the great post-war suburban growth that turned rural parishes into suburbia, with greater responsibilities in provision of parish facilities, schools, and programs. Each parish cemetery under the archdiocesan organization operates with the same fee structure and services as the major cemeteries, and each is assigned for supervision to a major "parent" cemetery.
Catholic Cemetery Conference
Chicago’s Catholic Cemeteries were also instrumental in the founding of the National Catholic Cemetery Conference in 1949. Father Casey was its first president as well as host of the initial convention of the conference. Space for the national office of the conference is provided in Hillside, Illinois at Queen of Heaven Catholic Cemetery & Mausoleums.
In 1965, an amalgamation of all the various Catholic cemetery groups took place, important because it enabled unified planning for the first time, avoiding a duplication of effort and bringing a consistent and universally applicable set of prices, fees, operating policies, and regulations to all of Chicago’s Catholic cemeteries. The amalgamation was directed by Cardinal Meyer, influenced both by the practicality of the measure, as well as by the difficulty of having responsibility in all matters affecting cemeteries without having effective unified control over cemeteries.
After the death of Cardinal Meyer, the consolidation effort was carried through by Cardinal Cody. The Cardinal confirmed the appointment of Mr. John Philbin as executive director of the consolidated operation. Mr. Philbin served in this position until the end of July, 1983 when he accepted a position as Director of Financial Services for the Archdiocese of Chicago.
His successor, Donald A. Massaro, was appointed in January of 1984 as Executive Director under Msgr. Patrick J. Pollard who was to be the new Archdiocesan Director upon Msgr. McElligotts' retirement. In 2001, Mr. Roman Szabelski was named Executive Director of Catholic Cemeteries by Francis Cardinal George.
Under Cardinal Bernardin 90% of the Catholic population of the archdiocese utilized one or more of the many Catholic cemeteries. While their ties are influenced by archdiocesan regulations, tradition, and family connection, they are equally influenced by the levels of service, maintenance, and value. In recent years it has become quite important to recognize personal identity. At the time of amalgamation of all cemeteries, there was concern that ethnic identity and heritage would be lost in a consolidation. This sense of identity has been reinforced in the development of religious features in cemeteries with a particular heritage, and in the development of cemetery liturgy in languages other than English. It has also meant being aware of population changes within the archdiocese and providing for the identity of newer groups in our society, particularly in recent years of the Hispanic Catholic population.
In 1996, the Archdiocesan Cemeteries were providing care for over two million burials and entombments, maintaining in excess of 2,400,000 gravesites and 27 mausoleum structures with 128,139 crypts and niches, and employing over 300 full-time employees. Its more than 3,000 acres in use for cemetery purposes, containing over one hundred miles of roads, encompasses more space than almost any of the communities in the Chicago area, with the exception of the city of Chicago itself.
Large or small every Catholic cemetery started is still in existence except the old pre-Calvary city burial grounds and Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Waukegan which was closed in 1960 and the burials transferred to St. Mary Cemetery, Waukegan.
There are forty-four cemeteries comprising the Archdiocesan Catholic Cemeteries. Nineteen of these are diocesan cemeteries: All Saints, Des Plaines; Ascension, Libertyville; Assumption, Glenwood; Calvary, Evanston; Good Shepherd, Orland Park; Holy Cross, Calumet City; Holy Sepulchre, Alsip; Maryhill, Niles; Mount Carmel, Hillside; Mount Olivet, Chicago; Our Lady of Sorrows, Hillside; Queen of Heaven, Hillside; Resurrection, Justice; St. Adalbert, Niles; St. Boniface, Chicago; St. Casimir, Chicago; St. Joseph, River Grove; St. Mary, Evergreen Park; and St. Michael the Archangel, Palatine. Twenty four are parish or institutional cemeteries. The associated parish and institutional cemeteries are Calvary, Steger; Sacred Heart, Northbrook; Sacred Heart, Palos Hills; St. Alphonsus, Lemont; St. Anne, Richton Park (Park Forest); St. Bede, Fox Lake; St. Benedict, Blue Island; Sts. Cyril & Methodius, Lemont; St. Gabriel, Oak Forest; St. Henry, Chicago; St. James, Sag Bridge; St. James, Sauk Village; St. Joseph, Round Lake; St. Joseph, Wilmette; St. Mary, Fremont Center; St. Mary, Highland Park; St. Mary, Lake Forest; St. Mary, Waukegan; St. Michael, Orland Park; St. Patrick, Lake Forest; St. Patrick, Lemont; St. Patrick, Wadsworth; St. Peter, Skokie; St.Peter, Volo; and Transfiguration, Wauconda. Independently administered Catholic cemeteries include Mt. Carmel, Antioch; St. Mary, Buffalo Grove; St. Mary, Techny; and St. Mary of the Lake Seminary, Mundelein. Additional institutional cemeteries are also owned and maintained by some religious communities, on their own grounds, for the benefit of their community members. Individual histories of the larger diocesan cemeteries are noted further in this section.
Among the forty-four cemeteries, some are less than an acre in size and may not have more than one or two burials a year. Some are over 300 acres in size, and nine of them have over 1,000 burials a year. In terms of total burials, the largest is St. Adalbert Cemetery with almost 300,000 burials in one hundred twenty-five years.
Catholic Cemeteries are much more a part of the community than in the early days when they tended to be insulated from the community. Environmental concerns and the desire in metropolitan areas to preserve "green belts" for everyone’s benefit have opened cemeteries to community needs for passive recreation, while still preserving the cemetery’s primary function.
In a recent interview with the Archdiocesans‘ newspaper “Chicago Catholic,” Msgr. Patrick Pollard, Archdiocesan Director of Catholic Cemeteries spoke about the Catholic Cemeteries ministry as being a core ministry of the Catholic Faith. This core ministry, Msgr. Pollard stated, is tied to the Corporal Works of Mercy. (See Msgr. Pollard Interview for details of interview)
It is in this same spirit, of Cemetery ministry being a core ministry of our faith, that Cardinal Francis George rejected a proposal by one of the death care conglomerates to manage the Catholic Cemeteries of Chicago. In reflections of Cardinal George on Catholic Cemeteries, he states "As we look towards the third millennium of Christianity, it is both wonderful and comforting to know that our Catholic cemeteries are caring for and will continue to care for the remains of our loved ones awaiting the resurrection." (See Cardinal George article for details)
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