The Journey

Catholic Cemetery Remains Undisturbed and Untended

By Blair Tellers

Personal Essay

Venturing out the lone dirt road past snow-covered hills outside Davenport, expect to be greeted by nothing on Cemetery Road except weathered power lines, an owl, and blanketed silence. There, you'll find the city's old Catholic Cemetery, originally known as Immaculate Conception. Out of nowhere a lone fir tree appears, marking a plot of land speckled with crooked headstones half sunken in the earth.

Older cemeteries like this one are not as welcoming as the new, more heavily populated graveyards, such as Davenport's other cemetery, Mountain View, which by contrast is well-maintained, protected by numerous hovering trees. Immaculate Conception is completely bereft of colorful flowers, visitors, elaborate mosques, cleanly pruned bushes, or the shiny, black granite headstones that you can see your reflection in. Once, a handful of fir trees stood vigil over the site, but only a solitary tree remains. The ground is frozen solid and nothing else remains but a small collection of headstones.

One five-foot-tall headstone in the far-right-hand corner stands isolated under the single looming fir tree. Dearest loved one, it reads, we must lay thee in the peaceful grave's embrace, but thy memory will be cherished, till we see thy heavenly face. Isolated and seemingly abandoned, Immaculate Conception looks anything but remembered.

No official caretaker has been named for decades. Instead, the cemetery's wellbeing has been left in the hands of random volunteers – but even these have been scarce and few. Years ago Father O'Brien, a priest for Davenport's Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, wrote to the Bishop of Spokane requesting that the cemetery be put under the official care of the city. This request, however, never came to fruition.

The Davenport City Hall clerk searched through a 100-year-old city reference book for more information, but the effort was in vain. One Immaculate Conception Church member, Jean Hein, who has lived here his entire life, periodically takes his sons out to the burial grounds to mow.

"A few people had ancestors buried there, but they've moved away," Hein said. "The last person to be buried there was in 1977. The graves are very simple due to the economic conditions of the 1800s and 1900s."

Retired Davenport Times reporter Pat Rice visited the grounds with cemetery preservationist Marge Womach in 2000. Together they identified 71 souls buried there, including five unknowns. Rice wrote about the cemetery in an online article for a Washington cemetery database. In the summer of 1992, Davenport Boy Scout Tim Coley cleaned and kept the cemetery as an Eagle project.

"For a year or so it looked good," Rice wrote, "but with no one designated as caretaker, it has reverted to its previous condition."

Cracked pieces of a headstone scattered atop a grave like a puzzle reveal a death in the mid-1800s. Rocky, uncomfortably bumpy grounds form a thick shield over the mounds, guarding corpses that have dwelled six feet below for more than 240 years.

A cold stone cross without markings slowly disappears into the earth. Several plots are unmarked, possibly because the original markers were made of wood. A child's grave sits in the middle of the field. At least, Hein believes it is a child's grave, because it is so small. A cross made out of old water pipes serves as the marker.

Four members of the James Holland family, the people who donated the land, lie buried side by side. Each headstone is faded and cracked; clumps of spider egg sacs rest tightly in the crevices.

"These rural and untended cemeteries need all the protection they can get," Rice said. "All of these people were once loved by someone."