Finding Solace in the Peaceful Resting Place of Our Ancestors in St. Agnes Cemetery in Menands NY

Tuesday, October 26, 2021
Some people find great solace in visiting the cemeteries where their loved ones are laid to rest. I was never one of those people.

For most of my life, I've felt a sort of disconnect when it came to visiting gravesites.  Maybe it had to do with my Christian upbringing, believing that my loved ones were not really below the ground but rather in heaven in the company of God and their already deceased loved ones.  For me, I found solace in looking at photos, reliving times gone by, sharing stories of their lives with family....all things that in my mind would serve to keep their memory alive.  As far as I was concerned, cemeteries served to store the skeletal remains of people, including people I loved and lost, but those people, their souls, were no longer there.  They were in heaven.  I didn't need to visit the box that held their remains to remember them or honor them.  I did visit them but without the emotional tug that so many feel when visiting graves.  It was more a matter of paying respects.  

Because of that disconnect, I didn't want to be 'in' a cemetery, imprisoned for all eternity beyond a time when there'd be any relatives left to know where I was, or care where I was for that matter.  I thought, 'Why take up space in the cemetery when someday no one will even know who I am if they happen to read my gravestone'?  Well my thoughts about cemeteries changed recently when I began researching our genealogy and we discovered John's third great grandfather, Captain Michael O'Sullivan.  Michael's story was so fascinating that I shared it here on the blog, Finding a Hero in our Family Tree.  In our research, we discovered that Captain O'Sullivan is buried in Menands in the St. Agnes Cemetery and the folks in the cemetery office were able to locate and direct us to Michael's grave.

Although both of us were born and raised in the Capital District, neither of us were familiar with St. Agnes Cemetery so our first visit was a pretty mind-blowing experience. In case you aren't familiar, let me give you a little cemetery history with the help of Kelly Grimaldi, Historian, Albany Diocesan Cemeteries.  In the early 1800's rural cemeteries hadn't yet been established.  Church cemeteries were full and there was a need for burial space.  By the early 1830's municipal cemeteries were also filling up.  A surge of immigrants, many of them Catholic, magnified the shortage of burial space.  In the 1840's the Albany Rural Cemetery was created through the acquisition of farmland for non-denominational burials but was still a need for a burial space for Catholics.  In 1868 that need was met with the founding of St. Agnes Cemetery, thanks to Peter Cagger, a well respected attorney from Albany.  Peter purchased the original 50 acres of land for the cemetery in 1867 for $20,000.  He immediately resold the land for $1.00 to establish Albany County's first Catholic rural cemetery.  Landscape architects and engineers transformed the rocky, hilly land into a beautiful cemetery in just 12 months and the cemetery was consecrated on May 19th, 1868.  Cagger was elected the first president of the board of trustees. and trustees were given first choice of grave lots.  Ironically, Cagger was killed in an accident when he was thrown from his buggy in Central Park in NYC  just one month after choosing his final resting place making him one of the cemetery's very first interments.

Today the cemetery consists of 107 acres where over 100,000 are buried, including Captain Michael O'Sullivan and his grandson, Michael O'Sullivan (John's great grandfather) in a separate plot on the other side of the cemetery.  If you read Captain O'Sullivan's story, you know that in his plot are also buried his wife and their daughters Catherine, Mary and Elizabeth.  Mary's stone had toppled from its base and was broken.  Catherine's was stained and the cross on top of it was broken from the base.  Elizabeth's stone was sitting precariously on its base, ready to topple with very little encouragement.  Despite our prior indifference toward cemeteries, Captain O'Sullivan's story, his heroism and patriotism as an Irish immigrant who lied about his age in order to fight for his new country in the Civil War, inspired us to have his cemetery plot restored to the dignified condition it was so long ago.

We contacted Kelly and arranged with her to have new bases poured for Mary and Elizabeth's monuments and to have Mary's stone repaired.  Once the bases were poured and ready, the two monuments were reset onto the bases.  Kelly repaired Mary's broken cross monument and cleaned and restored it as best she could since some pieces of the cross were now missing, not surprising since Mary died in 1868. She also repaired the cross on Catherine's monument and cleaned it too.  Seeing photos of the restoration, one of Captain O'Sullivan's descendants who happens to be a second great grandson, wanted to contribute towards the restoration and so we arranged for Kelly to clean Elizabeth's monument as well.   Now the entire O'Sullivan plot is standing tall and proud, as it represents a family whose story has now been retold. Thanks to, we found some common descendants and our newfound respect and appreciation for burial grounds.  Ironically, Michael's second great grandson, Walt, who was instrumental in putting together Captain O'Sullivan's story, grew up 3 houses from John until 1962 but they never knew each other or that they were related!  Talk about coincidence!!

My intention in this post was to share the beauty and awe of St. Agnes Cemetery,  but as I tried to find the words to tell its story, I realized that my intention in sharing is about more than the beautiful grounds and hundreds of magnificent monuments. It's about the people who lay in rest there whose stories are waiting to be told.  In 1899, Myron Cooney wrote a book about the famous people in St. Agnes Cemetery and Captain O'Sullivan is among those he writes about.  To celebrate St. Agnes' 150 year anniversary, Historian Kelly Grimaldi wrote a gorgeous book, "These Sacred Grounds".  She tells the story of the cemetery's inception, the people who helped it come to fruition and the stories of many of the people laid to rest there.  It's a fascinating and visually captivating coffee table book that you'll want to read over and over again whether you have roots in the Albany area or just love cemeteries.  Since our first visit to St. Agnes this past spring, we have visited several more times...probably ten times or more.  I'm not sure what it is that draws me there, I just know I am, and not just at Michael's grave.  I find myself exploring the grounds, reading the gravestones, wondering what story these souls left behind.  

So here's my take-away.....we all have people who came before us, people whose traits and DNA we inherited-even without knowing them, people who paved the way for the life we have now.  Some of their stories are untold but live in the memories of our living relatives.  Now is the time to ask questions and learn as much as we can about their lives and their past.  If all of your elders are gone, some of their story can be recreated by searching sites like  It's important to instill a sense of family history and heritage in our kids and grandkids so that they appreciate the legacy that came before them and influenced the life they are living today, even if those ancestors aren't Civil War heroes or otherwise famous. In this world that often feels egocentric and self centered, it's important to recognize that there were people who did amazing things for their community and their country - people like Peter Cagger who made it possible for over 100,000 Catholics to have a final resting place.  History is worth repeating and and it's worth preserving.  Your family history is worth preserving and your ancestors burial grounds are worth saving.  

So I urge you to do two things: Begin to explore your family heritage.  You can read my earlier post about the subject to help get you started: Searching Our Roots and Connecting with Our Past.  Find out where your ancestors are buried and then visit their graves if possible.   Our granddaughters were in awe of St. Agnes Cemetery - the number of stones, the inscriptions on them and the massive monuments on so many.  Consider restoring monuments if necessary and if funds allow.  It's not a cheap endeavor but it is totally worth the investment.  And finally, share your family heritage and stories with your family.  

Here's a glimpse at some of the more elaborate monuments that mark the resting place of many who were laid to rest over 100 years ago.  I know you'll be in awe....

This gorgeous stone was cleaned and restored by Kelly Grimaldi.

After the death of an idolized grandchild, Gabrielle Thatcher, this monument was built to represent the Archangel Gabrielle

Bronze Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist (below), flank the entrance of the resting place of John McArdle a popular tavern owner in Albany in his day.  He was one of the original trustees for St. Agnes and he chose the largest lot sitting high on Founders Hill.  He donated 1/3 of his lot to the Daughters of Charity who ran St. Vincent's Orphanage.  The remaining third of his lot was set aside for the burial of orphaned children.  Kelly's book is filled with fascinating stories like this!

Above, the Brady Mausoleum.  Right before his death, Anthony Brady gave the Roman Catholic Diocese enough money to build a maternity hospital on North Main Avenue in Albany.  Nearly 100,000 babies were born there, including my husband's brother.  The babies that died or were stillborn in that hospital are laid to rest in Section 2 in a large lot donated by the Brady Family. (excerpted from These Sacred Grounds)

I'll post more in an album on my Facebook page:  With the holidays approaching, it's a great time to order Kelly's book, These Sacred Grounds.  It's filled with beautiful photographs and fascinating stories about Albany and so many people and places in its history.

Of course not all the monuments at St. Agnes are large and impressive. Some are much more modest but still unique, like these...

I hope this posts inspires you to pay a visit to a cemetery and that perhaps you'll locate an ancestor in a cemetery near you for the first time. And I hope you'll be inspired to tell their story for generations to come! Thanks to the Albany Diocesan Cemeteries for the care they take in keeping St. Agnes and other diocesan cemeteries so pristine. Thank you also to Kelly Grimaldi for her tireless work in preserving history, in her work (along with the cemetery grounds people) in restoring the O'Sullivan plot to its original glory and for helping our family embrace its history. 
If you've made it to the end.....thank you. And thanks for stopping by Life As I See It.  For more stories like this one, check my blog Directory....

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