A Lonely Little Historic Church and Country Graveyard

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Today’s dispatch is about a graveyard.

Last Sunday was a gloriously sunny day and I decided to go up to Burra for the afternoon.

Passing through Mintaro and the memory part of my brain went into overdrive as child hood years came flooding back. Indeed my mind detoured back to that little church, the little stone Church perched on top of the hill overlooking the historic town of Mintaro, the Church of the Immaculate Conception (Catholic) and its historic cemetery at Mintaro SA.

The little stone Church looked lonely and abandoned yet fetching. I hadn’t been there for some years and hadn’t set foot inside since the 1970s. It called and off I went up the hill.

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The little Church of the Immaculate Conception was built by the early Jesuits and is a  part of the local Jesuit parish of Sevenhill.  It is the oldest Jesuit church in Australia.

We regularly attended the Church for Sunday Mass when I was growing up. The Church is tiny. Narrow. With all 9 of us kids, plus Mum and Dad, we took up at least two pews, sometimes spilling over to three. Of course, there were other families with children enough to fill more than one pew but we regularly topped the list with our lot of eleven filing in like sheep. The Catholic way back then was children. Yep, all those little fish-eaters! Large families all over the area from Mintaro to Sevenhill and Clare on up to Jamestown and region. The local Vatican Valley!

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Mission Cross 1881

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Love the antique iron grave enclosures.  History is my true love, a historian I will be in the other life.

Vintage cemeteries are never dull. Each one is a history. A monument itself. A record of our forebears, our heritage, revealing the past, our local history. It’s so interesting walking through, mulling over a family history.

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I first spoke about abandoned and neglected country grave sites here after a visit to the Angaston cemetery.

It is not unusual to come across rural cemeteries with graves in disarray, broken and overgrown. Headstones are often weathered, eroded, cracked and broken. Subsidence of the ground and poor footings under the headstone will eventually cause the stone to sink, lean and fall. Sites are often overgrown with weeds and shrubs. Most of the abandoned or neglected are older graves.

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Some of the most interesting parts of older cemeteries, besides their historical importance as heritage records, are the antique cast and wrought iron fencing panels enclosing the older grave sites. These early antique iron grave enclosures are works of art and I’m sure of great historical and architectural significance to the right people.

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It’s disappointing to see broken iron work and leaning, cracked and broken headstones. Looks like the tree root is contributing to the subsidence.

It is clear that grave site maintenance of historic cemeteries is not a fiscal priority for rural towns and councils.  Of course, families and friends are long gone or not able to afford conserving graves.  This means that while cemeteries are a vast resource for researchers and those interested in local history, conservation of a family grave and maintaining the heritage for future generations is never guaranteed.  It’s a costly exercise.

Here’s some of what I said in the previous blog post mentioned above:

Of course there are many reasons why graves or cemeteries are run down or abandoned. Sometimes the family has “died off” or moved away.  This could be the case.

There maybe no living family members or friends with a personal connection to the deceased and who have funds to maintain.

It is more likely then that the grave will end up being neglected or abandoned.

If the graves are old they are more likely to suffer the vagaries of neglect or abandonment for the same reasons. The weather takes its toll. Certainly, it seems that some of the graves at Angaston cemetery are in this category.

The main thing is that graves are protected from disturbance and desecration and their identity is preserved by the local authorities and Councils through registers and mapping. Local Council sites and sites such as Find a Grave at the Angaston Cemetery offer a good place to start.

The repose of the dead is always to be left in peace. It’s simply respect and dignity.

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Have you ever wondered who was the local stonemason at the time?  Who made or manufactured these ornate Victorian monuments?  What materials were used? How did family members come to order and acquire them in the 19th century?

The study of headstones is both interesting and important from a local historical point of view. Each stone is a piece of dated folk craft, baring unique  historical information about changing family life, occupations, religious beliefs, hopes and fears, and decorated with various ornamental devices which all also change with the passing years.

Moreover, often the stones are not of anonymous manufacture; they are easily traceable to a family of local stone masons, sometimes still working in Australian country towns, about whom they also yield information.

Unfortunately the study of this class of evidence has not anywhere received the attention it deserves until almost too late. In most countries now graveyards are fast disappearing as land values rise.· The usual practice is to remove the headstones and level the land. Under a good local authority the area may be grassed over, to become featureless ‘open space’, with some at least of the stones placed around the perimeter. More often the stones are destroyed and the cemetery disappears without trace.

From: Nineteenth Century Tombstones (Australia)

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Broken.

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Abandoned. Leaning, subsidence, falling. No footing. Rotted. Aged.

The old iron surrounds are sometimes turned, moulded, sometimes arrowhead shaped, sometimes fleur de lis, sometimes other shapes.

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Neglected.

Looks like subsidence and tree roots are the main causes of this concrete headstone being moved.

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A crooked epitah in an ornate iron enclosure, sort of a fleur de lis pattern perhaps.

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Leaning and subsidence. The vagaries of the weather. Weeds. Overgrown. Untendered.

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Sometimes its the slope and location of the cemetery itself and/or the vista from the cemetery that gives it a character and feel, a sense of history.  Certainly St. Mary’s, being on top of the hill, offers a lovely vista over the area including the town of Mintaro and surrounding vineyards and farm land.

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Beautiful old metal grave enclosures.

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Sometimes the beauty of an old cemetery for me is its overall aesthetic appeal in so many ways explicit and implicit.

A vintage graveyard is really a historical art monument in itself. There are elaborate headstones. There are plain and mundane grave memorials, some hand made using two pieces of wood. There are beautiful cast iron grave enclosures. There is the lay out of the cemetery itself.

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Vintage headstones reveal the shone mason’s craft of the period, the carving and etching. the fonts of the era.

These old headstones are in fact monuments and structures, symbols of death themselves manifested in the Victorian stone masonry and craft of the 19th century.

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Vista overlooking vineyards and farming land around Mintaro.

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Vineyards.

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Vineyards in background. Ornate stone masonry cross engraved with the words, ‘Thy Will Be Done – IHS’

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No longer tended. Abandoned. Broken.

Originally grave enclosures were to protect the graves from being trampled by wandering livestock, and were an indication that the grave was being maintained.

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Who was the monumental mason who made this ornate marble head stone?

This is Victorian stone masonry reflected in its memorialisation of deaths in 1883 and 1895.

Possibly lead used in etching the memorial words ending with Sweet Jesus Mercy.

Ornate old wrought iron enclosure.

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Broken cross.  Subsiding and sunken grave.  Broken. Weeds.

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12 year old servant girl dies in 1898

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The plain and simple memorial.

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Victorian stone masonry.  I wonder who was the local stone mason?

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Beautiful wrought iron fence work complements the elaborate grave stone showing 19th century stone masonry.

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Arrowhead iron fencing panels.

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Here’s a few links that may be of interest:

Historic South Australian Graves and Cemeteries

Historic Heritage Cemeteries Tasmania

Historic Cemeteries Conservation Trust of New Zealand

Talking Headstones Monuments and Other Grave Issues

Nineteenth Century Tombstones (Australia)

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