5503 W. Bluemound Road
Milwaukee, WI 53208
Bella Morte Rating: 2 Tombstones
Yes, the cemetery is small and...yes...it managed only a humble 2 Tombstone rating; but, despite that, Milwaukee's Calvary Cemetery does possess a certain kind of charm, and that in sufficient quantity as to have secured a spot on Bella Morte.
From its blue Gothic Revival, wooden gatehouse to the just-out-of-reach promise of wonders inside the dilapidated ruins of the Romanesque hulk on Chapel Hill, Calvary is not a typical Catholic cemetery. To begin, it lacks the usual proliferation of pious statuary. This is not to say such items are not present, but rather, they are in a decided minority. Second, there is the feature just referred to…Chapel Hill.
Built in 1899, the chapel was plagued from its birth with problems. These owe, in large part, to the lack of common sense used during construction. It seems the chapel was never equipped with electricity or plumbing. Because of this, it is at the mercy of the notoriously harsh Wisconsin winters and the toll these have taken is everywhere apparent...from the crumbling brick and cracked windows to the glimpses of massive interior damage afforded by a glance through a single north-facing window whose missing pane tantalizes while remaining just out of reach of the curious. The front doors were long-ago sealed and the aforementioned windows are all either boarded up or hopelessly high...so there is no possibility of gaining access. While 27 crypts are housed within the structure, only one is occupied—how delightfully creepy it is to consider that single, lone corpse resting within the silent walls.
Recently, the Catholic Diocese of Milwaukee has given some thought to restoring the chapel; however, the proposed cost is in the millions--a sum not likely to be spent by a foundering Church. There is some talk among the membership of the Friends of Calvary that fund-raising should commence, but no solid steps have yet been taken toward this end.
As previously mentioned, the chapel stands on a hill…a number of steep and generally unmaintained steps lead up to it but, truly, visitors are probably safer climbing on their own through the grass and gravel steeps. As the ascent is made, visitors will note a proliferation of burials. Some are groups of uniform stones, others are vastly different—what they all have in common, however, is that they mark the final resting place of priests and nuns. For this reason, Chapel Hill is sometimes referred to as “Holy Hill” (not to be confused with the nearby National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians, which is also familiarly called by the same name).
At the base of Chapel Hill stands the cemetery’s former Receiving Vault. This structure was actually constructed by hollowing out part of the hill so that the interior actually rests underground. Built in 1902, the Receiving Vault was originally used to hold the bodies of deceased Catholics who could not be buried during the winter because the earth was too frozen to open. In 2001, the building underwent a major renovation and its interior was remodeled to accommodate crypts. It is now a public mausoleum. In addition to these new vaults, additional burial spaces were added to either side of the façade. Combined, the project allowed for the addition of 300 new interments.
Easily the most beautiful monument at Calvary is that of an angel created in memory of Patrick Drew (1829-1903). This figure stands in Section 6C (lot 251). Perhaps the easiest way to find it is to stand with your back to the Receiving Vault. A bronze statue of Padre Pio will be in front of you and, behind him, a service building. Walk to the other side of the service building and look straight ahead. You should see the angel rising from a hill just beyond the next section.
Patrick Drew was the Commissioner of Public Works from 1893-1896 and, upon his death, this beautiful memorial was created in his honor by a woman named Ellen Drew (records have been lost, but the general consensus is that Ellen was Patrick’s wife). Ellen commissioned famed Polish sculptor, Joseph Aszklar, to create a memorial according to her own plans. The result is the unique and commanding female angel who appears to be ascending or descending from the sky. Cleverly supported by the graceful folds of her robe, the angel’s feet float weightlessly above the granite stone she tops. Her right hand is lifted, her index finger pointing heavenward. The left hand is extended earthward in an unusual gesture which seems to suggest either a benediction or a command to stop. If you look closely, you will notice a number of metal studs beneath a clearly-defined cut which encircles the angel’s upper left arm. Although The Proprietors have been unable to substantiate the rumour, the popularly accepted story is that the original arm was similarly extended, but the hand (now open and empty) clasped a cross. Clearly, the arm has been replaced, but the reason it was removed in the first place is lost to history. The angel is made of bronze-plated steel and is remarkably beautiful. Oxidation has turned the bronze to the familiar verdi gris, however, because of the way gravity pulls water over the face, an unusual pattern has been created. The angel’s face is black save for two bright streaks of green which begin to either side of the forehead and join to run the length of the nose. The overall effect is that of strange war-paint.
Calvary Cemetery hosts two monuments which commemorate Milwaukee disasters. The first is located in Section 11B. This memorial is a towering 21’ obelisk topped by a cross. It commemorates the Catholic dead who lie buried beneath it in four surrounding lots. What these souls have in common is the means of their departure from this earth. All met their end in the early morning hours of Wednesday, 10 January, 1883 when the Newhall House Hotel caught fire.
Standing at six stories and constructed of Milwaukee Brick, the hotel was built in 1857 and considered to be one of the young nation’s best hotels. Unfortunately, by 1883 the building had seen better days. Passed from owner to owner, the upkeep continued to decline and the building was plagued by a number of small fires. That all changed on 10 January, 1883 when flames began to consume the first floor. Elevator shafts soon carried the smoke and fire up and throughout the entire structure, trapping guests on the higher floors who could only wait for rescue at the windows. Some leapt into nets extended by fireman only to fall through, the material meant to catch them having rotted and lost its ability to hold weight. Others chose to leap to their deaths rather than be consumed in the inferno. According to all accounts, the fire department made valiant efforts to save the victims. Sadly, many of the building’s fire hoses had dry-rotted and proved useless. One fireman, Herman Strauss, stretched a ladder across a 20’ expanse between the hotel’s fifth floor and an adjacent building. He then proceeded to clamber across repeatedly, each time dragging with him one of the 50 servant women who resided on that floor. Through his efforts, 10 of these women were saved. The most famous guest to be saved was the man known as “General Tom Thumb.” Mr. Thumb stood 25” tall, as did his wife. The diminutive couple were both sleeping in a third-floor room when fire broke out and both were fortunate enough to have been saved though the heroic efforts of the embattled fire crew.
When it was all over, somewhere between 70 and 90 individuals had perished. Because hotel records were not particularly accurate, and because it is believed some bodies were wholly consumed, we will never know the exact toll. Those victims who were known in life to have been Catholic were taken to Calvary and there laid to rest together. Those who were Protestants were interred at Milwaukee’s crown jewel cemetery, Forest Home.
The inscription on the stone commemorating the fire is as follows:
SACRED TO THE MEMORY
WHO LOST THEIR LIVES BY THE BURNING
REST IN PEACE
(Erected by a sympathizing [sic] public)
The second tragedy belongs to the Lady Elgin, a wooden sidewheel steamer lost off Winnetka, Illinois as she steamed from Chicago to Milwaukee in the early morning hours of 7 September, 1860. On that morning, the steamer, overcrowded with revellers from Milwaukee who'd gone to Chicago to attend a Democratic Party Rally, was caught in the stormy waters of Lake Michigan. Around 2:30 in the morning, the storm-tossed ship shuddered and lurched portside. The 129', 266 ton schooner, Augusta, flying nearly full-sail, had lost control when her deckload of lumber shifted, pulling the ship over so she was nearly lying on her side as she plowed through the dark and turbulent lake. As the Augusta's crew struggled to right her, they saw, too late, the lights of the Lady Elgin glimmering dead ahead. Moments later, the Augusta's bowsprit impaled the Lady Elgin just forward of her sidewheel. As the Augusta turned, she took with her the wheel as well as many feet of the hull's planking.
Immediately, Captain Wilson ordered the 50 cows travelling below deck thrown overboard to lighten his crippled vessel. He ordered his crew to move iron stoves and as much cargo as possible to the starboard side in a desperate attempt to get the Lady Elgin's wounded side up and out of the water. No amount of effort, however, could save her. Her stern began to sink and, in a few moments, she broke up and sank. Old, leaking lifeboats, rotted life preservers, the storm's violence and a host of other misfortunes saw to it that many passengers died shortly after the sinking. Even so, at least 600 passengers managed to cling to large sections of deck and these made it near shore; however, the undertow caused by the storm claimed all but 160 of these. Stories of heroism abounded. Best known is that of Edward Spencer, a Northwestern student who is credited with saving at least 18 individuals through his meritorious efforts. Captain Wilson himself died when his body was flung into rocks as he attempted to save two women.
Reproduced below is a short commemoration of the disaster, printed in the Manitowoc Pilot, September 14, 1860:
We devote a large portion of today's Pilot to the distressing particulars of the sinking of the steamer Lady Elgin, and the consequent loss of valuable lives, near Chicago, on Saturday morning last. The fatal news arrived here on Sunday evening, throwing a dark gloom over our village, and creating deep emotions of sympathy and grief. Our heart is too full to give utterance to our feelings on this dreadful occurrence. Sudden indeed was the fall of the fatal blow which struck so many down. O, fatal shaft! How withering the pangs thou hast borne to the bleeding bosoms of anxious mothers, kind fathers, and loving kindred. Melancholy and sad must be the retrospect. The dearest and fondest of the family circles have been swept away--have disappeared in the meridian and youth of their years--in the prime of man and womanhood--in the infancy of beauty and loveliness--in the very dawn of usefulness. The dark storm cloud, with the arms of death in its embrace, suddenly burst upon them, and they sank beneath the deep waves. The blue waters of Lake Michigan covers them, and it only remains for sympathizing friends, who knew them best, to appreciate the virtues of them all, and pay the last sad offices of grief to their memory.
Although there is no common memorial for the victims of the Lady Elgin disaster, a trip through Calvary will reveal hundreds of graves which bear the inscription... "Lost on the Lady Elgin." One particularly moving example is the grave of John Hendrickson (Section 6A). His weathered stone reads as follows:
Died Sept. 8, 1860
Aged 23 Yrs. 9 Mo's
Born at Coldspring N. York
Requiescant in pace
Erected by his wife, Mary A. Hendrickson
Lost on the Lady Elgin
Sleeping to wake no more ~ numbered with those
Five hundred who failed to reach the shore
Calvary contains very few private mausoleums; however, there are two which are exceptional and bear mentioning. The first is the John Miley mausoleum. Located in Section 11A, the building wouldn't really inspire a second glance, but there is one feature which will be of interest to taphophiles. Approach the bronze gates and you will see two medallions in the form of putti. Reach through and turn the one on the right and it will slide open to reveal a combination lock. Quite unique!
The second mausoleum of note belongs to Lawrence McMahon. Located in Section 21, it rests right by the road and cannot be missed because of its distinctive, pyramidal shape. Although such mausoleums are fairly common, especially in Victorian cemeteries, what makes this one remarkable is the planning that went into it. It seems Mr. McMahon wanted to rest with his wife in a building that would not crumble over time. Accordingly, he instructed quartz be used as the aggregate in the concrete in order to give it superior strength and longevity. He also had all of the reinforcing rods made of bronze. This measure insured no deterioration from rust. Although the interior is not visible, we are told the walls are lined with marble. Mr. McMahon's wife preceded him in death in 1907. She died before the mausoleum was completed. We aren't sure where her body was kept in the interim, but it finally took its rightful place in the mausoleum in 1909. Mr. McMahon had to wait another 32 years before he could, shall we say, permanently enjoy the fruits of his labour.
The last monument we will reference is the beautiful tribute to Patrick Cudahy (Section 18). Mr. Cudahay was an American Industrialist whose legacy lives on in the form of the Wisconsin city that takes its name from his as well as the Patrick Cudahy company which is known as the "Home of Sweet Apple-Wood Smoke Flavor." The company sells all sorts of deli meats to restaurants and vendors.
But to the memorial...
Sitting on its own "island" (a triangular plot in the middle of several of the cemetery's roads), the monument is a rectangular "porch" supported by twelve stately columns, at the center of which is the large figure of a mourning woman. Rumour has it the model was Patrick's daughter. If one steps to the back of the memorial, the real treasure will be in view. This consists of two heavy bronze doors which were made in Italy for their intended purpose. Of course, the doors are chained shut, but we all know that, should they be opened, a staircase would lead one down into the family vault. If only those of us with deep respect for such things could visit....
There are, of course, other beautiful monuments and spots in Calvary and we at Bella Morte would not hesitate to recommend a visit should one happen to be in the area; however, dedicating an entire trip from a great distance would not be worth it for Calvary alone. Happily, though, Forest Home is nearby and most-assuredly worth a visit from great distances!