Honouring their ancestors

A small group of descendants, interested individuals hope to breath new life into historic St. Margaret of Scotland Pioneer Cemetery

by Mary MacKay, from the Charlottetown Guardian,November 27, 2008

The people buried in the St. Margaret of Scotland Pioneer Cemetery in St. Margarets may be long gone but they have not been forgotten. A small group of descendants and interested parties are trying diligently to breath new life into this tired, neglected burial ground, which was recently designated as a provincial heritage place by P.E.I. Heritage Foundation.

"This cemetery is from 1803. It's one of the oldest Catholic cemeteries in P.E.I. but there is evidence to show that people were buried here in the late 1700s (when the area was first settled by the Scottish immigrants)," says Anne Kells of Charlottetown, who along with her sisters, Pat Malone of Charlottetown and Helen MacDonald of Souris, are part of the St. Margaret of Scotland Pioneer Cemetery volunteer committee that is working on the restoration of this historic rural site which is the final resting site for 120 pioneering souls at the very least.

Sisters Anne Kells of Charlottetown, left, Helen MacDonald of Souris and Pat Malone of Charlottetown are part of a recently formed committee that is keen to restore beauty and dignity to the St. Margaret of Scotland Pioneer Cemetery which has fallen into disrepair.

"The original log church (built in 1803) used to be across the road," Kells says. "But in the 1890s the church was moved to its present site (farther inland) because the roads were being built then and people were moving inland because it was so wild and rough living on the shore." A new cemetery was opened next to the new church and the pioneer plot was closed to new occupants.

"When this cemetery closed and the new church opened some people decided they wanted to have their elders with them. So some bodies were exhumed from here and brought up to the new cemetery and their stones were moved up there as well. It's quite interesting because they had to have permission from Rome to do it. And it's fascinating because some of the bigger stones are now in what's still called 'the new cemetery,' " Kells says.

And as small as it is, there are many interesting stories connected to the people who are laid to rest in the pioneer cemetery, including John McIntosh (MacKintosh). Born in Naufrage in 1790, McIntosh was a farmer and politician who supported an end to the existing land ownership system on the Island and the redistribution of land to tenant farmers. He died in 1881 at the age of 92. His tombstone still clearly reads, "He was for several years a member of parliament and one of the pioneers of Responsible Government (sic). While McIntosh's headstone fared well, others definitely didn't. Gradually over time the cemetery fell into a great state of disrepair.

Charlie Gillis grew up in the area and used to visit there as a young boy. "They used to have (mounded) graves then. What they would do is build them up like a flowerbed and then you couldn't cut the grass or anything. There was no grass on the top. They'd be all decorated with seashells and all sorts of things," he remembers.

In 1971, there was a community effort to restore the historic burial ground. There were only five stones standing at that time. The headstones were removed, the entire area levelled off and then the headstones were put back and the broken ones repaired with cement.

"Since this restoration was done in the early 1970s you can see the deterioration again. The stones were not properly set on bases and so on. So some of them have fallen over, some of them have sunk into the ground," says Kells from the pioneer cemetery site that is close to her heart. "Our roots are very deep here in that both our parents grew up in this parish and our ancestors were among the first to settle here," adds Kells, who grew up in nearby Souris but has been a longtime St. Margaret summer resident as has Malone.

Both live just a short stroll down the road from the cemetery. "We've been coming here for years and years with our kids and grandkids and we kept saying every year, 'Oh, this is terrible. Somebody has got to do something about this,' " Kells remembers.

 And so with support from St. Margaret of Scotland Parish Council and the local community, a committee was formed in an attempt to do something to revamp the pioneer site. The edges of the site were recently cleared, uncovering an old stonewall that strongly defines the perimeter of the entire cemetery and several orphaned headstones that were likely displaced during the 1970s restoration. In the cemetery itself there are approximately 120 stones in need of repair.

"We think there are a lot more to be unearthed because this cemetery served the area from St. Peters to East Point, so quite a large area," Kells says. "And when they did the restoration in the early '70s they erected 130 stones. But there were 900 families living in this area in the 1800s and we know that there were a lot more buried here who maybe didn't have markers or the markers have disappeared."

A stonemason from New Brunswick estimates it will cost about $12,000 to lift and restore the existing stones and place them on proper bases with gravel. The committee has also applied to Service Canada for a worker to develop a website and to collect stories, photos and history pertaining to the cemetery. "This is a very important source of information about the early settlers so we want to compile some sort of a history and hopefully some information about the people in the graveyard," Kells says.

"Many people, both from P.E.I. and other parts of the world, visit the site searching for their relatives and wanting to honour their memory. Unless the site is restored and maintained, a vital part of P.E.I. history will be lost."