301 Chicago Avenue
Evanston, IL 60202
Bella Morte Rating: 2.5 Tombstones
Designed by Chicago architect James J. Egan, Calvary Cemetery’s impressive, arched limestone gate beckons passersby on Chicago Avenue to step inside the graveyard’s confines and experience all the grounds have to offer. Today, the main roadway just beneath the archway bisects the grounds at their midpoint and terminates at the Sheridan gate beyond which lie the turbulent waters of Lake Michigan. Were we able to turn back the hands of time, however, that same roadway would have been lined with elm trees and would have skirted a small lagoon. Sadly, an outbreak of Dutch Elm disease in the 1960s led to the loss (from disease or preventive removal) of the elms, many of which were over 100 years old at the time. The lagoon is also gone, a victim of progress and suburban growth, having been drained and backfilled with soil to create additional burial sites in the St. Peter and St. John the Baptist Shrine Sections in Calvary Cemetery today.
Nearly filled to capacity, there are speculative plans to remove some of the cemetery’s paved pathways to make room for new interments. In the meantime, the Archdiocese of Chicago, under whose purview the upkeep of the property falls, encourages hopeful prospective tenants to seek their eternal earthly real estate at other Catholic cemeteries in the area.
The oldest existing cemetery in the archdiocese, Calvary was consecrated by Bishop James Duggan on All Soul’s Day – 2 November, 1859 – and received its first permanent resident that same year. That is, its first permanent newly-dead resident as a number of Calvary’s dead actually arrived at their current location after having spent time underground elsewhere in Chicago. As has been the case in other urban areas, overcrowding in city cemeteries sometimes led to the purchase of more pastoral land beyond the city sprawl and the subsequent disinterment of individuals who preferred to relocate their loved ones to a more desirable address. But that, as they say, is only part of the story – literally, for, according to Chicago historian Richard Crowe, underpaid cemetery workers charged with moving the remains lacked the incentive to carry out their work with proper care and precision. Faced with collapsing caskets, skeletons, and corpses in various states of decay, workers sometimes moved only parts of their silent charges, leaving the remainder behind in the now abandoned gravesite.
At any rate, since the first interments in 1859, Calvary has become the final resting place of mayors, governors, congressmen, professional athletes, business magnates and a host of lesser-known souls who, for lack of fame were, we are certain, loved no less.
Case in point, the touching monument to one Josie Lyon who died in 1891 at the age of 9. A modest stone, resting between those of his father (George) and mother (Catherine) bears testament to the child’s name and date of death, yet his grieving parents were not content to mark their son’s passing with so humble a monument. Instead, just behind the modest stone stands the real memorial…a life-sized image of young Josie, dressed in what appears to be some sort of scouting uniform. An enormous scarf, tied in a bow, rests against his chest. Over his shirt he wears a close-fitting, button down jacket cinched with a belt held closed by a large buckle which appears to bear the image of an elf. He wears knickers and tights as he leans against a tree, a book held loosely in his right hand. His round face is set with eyes which seem fixed on nothing, gazing blankly out towards the cemetery grounds from behind the bronze and glass door which keeps him protectively encased in his stone enclosure.
For sheer grandeur, Calvary’s monument to John F. Cuneo Jr. -- prominent Chicago printing magnate, philanthropist and gentleman farmer – has no rival. Situated at the juncture of sections L, M, N and O, the massive Cuneo mausoleum rises skyward. Ornate bronze doors and stained glass windows grace either side of the building, each equally worthy of claiming the distinction of primary entrance. Two crypt areas open like wings from the central chamber and comprise the sides of the building not occupied by the doorways. The central rotunda features large granite slabs which appear to be awaiting an intended purpose. At the time of our visit (June, 2010) both John Cuneo Jr. and his wife, Herta, remained on this side of eternity and, therefore, had yet to take up residence in the mausoleum. Perhaps this area awaits their eternal repose?
Sadly, the impact of the impressive Cuneo mausoleum is lessened by the fact that it is surrounded on all sides by concrete roadway. Certainly, a monument this grand merits a landscape of grass, trees and shrubbery to suitably compliment its beauty. Instead, it stands orphaned amidst a palette of concrete and is further diminished by the fact that its own grey stone exterior so closely mimics the colour of the surrounding pavement. A real pity.
A stone’s throw from the massive Cuneo mausoleum lies the considerably more modest mausoleum of John Cuneo Sr. and his wife, Julia. The senior Cuneo owned and operated Hawthorn Mellody Farms Dairy, the National Tea Company, and the Cuneo Press. Of particular note on the elder Cuneo’s mausoleum are the busts of John Sr. and his wife. These extremely detailed, life-like images rest in little niches which flank either side of the building’s oxidized bronze gate. It appears the busts currently on display are composed of resin. Presumably, they are duplicates of older bronze images which were their predecessors.
Upon seeing a gravestone surmounted by carved images of crossed baseball bats and mementos of the sport resting in a space where a stone planter appears to have stood at one time, we approached and read the inscription:
Our Friend, Your Friend
“Little Bob Figg”
Expecting this to be the grave of a baseball great, yet not being aficionados of the sport, we were not surprised that we failed to recognize the name above the quote – Robert W. Figg.
A bit of research at a later date revealed that this is not the grave of a baseball great. Rather, it is the final resting place of a big man with an even bigger heart. Standing 6 feet tall and weighing over 250 pounds, “Little Bob” worked in the Chicago County Clerk’s Office as well as the Chicago County Treasurer’s office. Though he never played professionally, “Little Bob” was a prominent figure in non-professional baseball, umpiring amateur and semi-professional games. He also supported baseball clubs for young boys.
At the age of 54, “Little Bob” met his untimely end when he fainted at City Hall and subsequently plummeted 5 ½ stories down a stairwell.
According to a plaque now missing from his grave, his memorial at Calvary Cemetery was paid for “by his many friends and baseball fans.”
Other noteworthy gravesites at Calvary include the massive Lydon angel near the Sheridan road entrance, the “Artie and Willie” sculpture depicting youthful siblings leaned comfortably against each other inside a stone grotto, and the John and Clara Lynch memorial situated on its own grassy parcel within site of the massive Cuneo mausoleum. Two female figures adorn the centrally-located monument while a pair of kneeling angels stand guard over the stairs leading to the family graves scattered around the circular parcel.
Alas, we would not be The Proprietors if we failed to share with you the tale of Seaweed Charlie, Calvary’s most oft-noted spectre. As is frequently the case with such tales, speculation as to Charlie’s true identity abounds. What seems consistent, however, is that Charlie – whoever he was – died after having crashed his plane in Lake Michigan. The South Evanston area near Calvary forms what has been described as a “natural catch basin for flotsam and jetsam.” And the bodies of the drowned? It would appear so as Seaweed Charlie is seen crawling from the dark water beside Calvary Cemetery and crossing Sheridan Road where he disappears as he enters the graveyard. (If you are asking yourself why Charlie would be covered in seaweed as he crawls from a freshwater lake, go back to Horror 101. Do not pass Go. Do not collect your two hundred dollars! After all, who wants to hear about a ghost named Algae Charlie?)
All in all, though Calvary pales in comparison to some of Chicago’s other burying grounds, it merits a visit and promises to comfortably engage taphophiles for the space of a morning or afternoon. If you plan to drive by at night, keep an eye out for Charlie…and if you happen to see him, please give him our warmest regards.