Cemeteries Found on the EMU Campus
Author: Laura Bien
The recent excavation of forgotten graves is not the first time bones have been found on the northeastern part of EMU’s campus. “A bulldozer clearing the site for Eastern Michigan University’s new physical education building has uncovered part of a human skull and a large human bone,” read an article in the August 30, 1961 Ypsilanti Press. The article reported that the bones were found “200 yards north of the Buell-Downing residence hall area on the campus.” (The intervening Putnam/Sellers/Walton/Phelps residence complex was not built until 1966 & 1968).
The paper contacted officials who said “…the normal procedure when cemetery ground is sold is to have the bodies removed and replaced in another cemetery…apparently this grave was unmarked at the time the others were moved.” Those officials were members of the local Catholic diocese, since the land was once a Catholic cemetery operated by St. John the Baptist Church.
In 1874, the square parcel occupied the land bounded on the south by the then-longer St. John’s Street and on the east by a now-vanished road parallel to and west of Ann Street. The plot was bounded on the north by the now-vanished Lake Shore and Michigan Southern railroad curving northwest from the Ypsilanti depot, and on the west by a large land parcel owned by prominent Ypsilanti farmer William Jarvis. Today, the onetime site contains the Physical Plant on its northeast corner, almost all of the Putnam/Sellers/Walton/Phelps residence complex, the Wise residence hall (but not the DC 1 dining commons), the northern half of Buell residence hall, and a sliver of the east side of University Park.
The land had been purchased from Jarvis with a gift of money from Civil War soldiers. Belgian-born St. John’s pastor Edward Van Paemel “…was so solicitous of the welfare of Civil War troops housed in the Thompson building at the depot,” says one church history, “that when they left they donated $500 to the parish” [the equivalent of $7,000 today]. “This was used to buy space for a cemetery at the foot of St. John’s Street near Forest Avenue.” The men were members of the 14th Michigan Infantry.
By the late 1880s, it was clear a larger space was needed. The purchase of a new plot of land was reported in the April 13, 1888 Ypsilanti Commercial. “Owing to the present condition of the St. John’s cemetery, the Rev. Father De Bever has purchased for the sum of $1,400 [$33,500 today] 14 acres on the corner of River Street and the north line of the township, for a new cemetery” [the present-day St. John’s Cemetery]. The article continued, “The ground which is hilly and well suited for the purpose is directly opposite Highland Cemetery. The old ground will bring enough to meet all expenses incurred in buying and improving the new burial place.” Contrary to this projected sale, the old cemetery land wasn’t sold. On the 1895 Ypsilanti plat map, it still appears labeled as the “Old Catholic Cemetery.”
According to the Washtenaw County Genealogical Society’s county cemetery directory, the Old Catholic Cemetery was “vacated” (bodies removed) in 1900, and moved to the present-day St. John’s cemetery. On the next available historical plat map, that of 1915, the land is bare and unnamed.
The re-interment occurred under the leadership of Pastor Frank Kennedy, who served the church from 1892 until 1922 and had a reputation for a brilliant intellect, having passed his state board teaching examinations at the age of 11. During his tenure, Kennedy undertook several renovation projects, “tearing the cupola off the rectory and removing horse sheds,” reads one church history. “Kitchen, dining, recreation rooms and a library were added. The front lawn was filled with dirt from the old cemetery and was landscaped.” Despite Kennedy’s work, the main church building, built in 1858, was becoming inadequate for the congregation. Kennedy died in 1922, and was followed by pastor Dennis Needham who planned a grand new church.
A year later, Needham secured permission from diocese officials and sold the land to EMU. The church needed the money from the land sale to build the imposing present-day Romanesque structure. Detroit architects McGrath and Dohmen designed the structure. The sale helped begin construction, but funds remained tight. The basement of the present-day church was completed in 1924, but work stopped there for some time - though services continued in the basement.
Construction of the entire building wasn’t completed until 1932, with a final total cost of $98,000 [about $1,550,000 today]. Decoration of the interior took another decade. Finally around WWII it was done.
The Old Catholic Cemetery is not the only cemetery discovered on the grounds of EMU. In the 1940s, according to one witness, the start of construction for the onetime Pine Grove Terrace apartments (demolished in 2005-2006 to make space for the Student Center) revealed “a dozen or more old, old bones.” The witness was 1920s EMU student Edward Heyman, and his recollection of the scene is reproduced here: “In the early 1920s the northwest corner of Michigan State Normal College was a field of weeds and brush. The college decided to clean it up. A number of college students who were working part time to help pay their college expenses were sent up there, near the corner of the present Collegewood Drive and Hillside Court, to clean it up and to plant “baby” pine trees. As one of these students, I was interested in the area and especially in the fact that Professor William H. Sherzer, head of the Department of Natural Science, told us that the area was the site of an early Indian cemetery.
The trees were planted and the area was called Pine Grove or Pine Grove Park. Digging to plant the pines did not go deep enough to uncover any graves.
In the 1940s the college decided to build a number of apartment houses there, for married students. Seeing the pine trees, which I helped plant years before, being cut down and basements being dug, I walked over to the area to see what was happening. In the debris of the digging were a dozen or more old, old bones. The man in charge of the excavation said they were Indian bones, that the digging had uncovered remains of several graves . . .” --Edward Heyman March 10, 1970.”
Today the EMU Student Center’s peaceful Kiva Room overlooks the onetime site. Whether Native American or Catholic, one hopes that the spirits of all of those once interred on EMU’s grounds are at peace.
[Laura Bien is a history columnist with the Ann Arbor Chronicle and the Ypsilanti Courier. Her second book, “Hidden Ypsilanti,” will be published in late 2011. This article first appeared in the Ypsilanti Courier.]
Photo 1: The church. built from 1856 to 1858 on Cross Street. was dedicated to St. John the Baptist
Photo 2. The Catholic Cemetery on this 1874 plat map occupied land on the present-day northeast corner of EMU’s campus
Photo 3: Pastor Frank Kennedy presided over the re-interment of bodies from the old Catholic Cemetery to the present-day St. John’s Cemetery