Headstones and history
St. John's is Manitoba's oldest European cemetery -- so it's no surprise it's home to a colourful cast of characters
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/07/2016 (2326 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
If there is a more Sisyphean task than cutting the grass at the historic St. John’s Anglican Cathedral cemetery, Dennis Beaulieu would like to know what it is.
Beaulieu’s been mowing the nine-acre Winnipeg cemetery’s grass for 16 years. It takes almost a week-and-a-half for one person. You’re never mowing in a straight line. It’s forward and back, this way and that, navigating corner after corner, around gravestones representing 9,600 burials.
Then it’s time to start over again.
The difficulty isn’t just cutting around headstones. The difficulty is this was a pretty fashionable cemetery in its prime. There was, and probably still is, status to being buried here. Many people interred were the city fathers, captains of industry, the people that had future streets named after them — Pritchard, Sutherland, Logan, Matheson, Inkster, to name a few.
The John Omand from Omand’s Creek is buried here, as is the William Whyte from Fort Whyte.
This cemetery started in 1812 with the arrival of the Selkirk Settlers. It’s the oldest European cemetery in Manitoba. You don’t get more prestigious than that.
Many people buried here had means, which allowed them to indulge in not only elaborate headstones but also raised concrete curbs that enclosed the family plot. It was a bit of a funerary convention at one time, but no cemetery in Manitoba was as invested as St. John’s. There are hundreds of the raised curbs here. They are like low fences, 10 to 15 centimetres high. They enclose an area about the size of a sandbox, to fit all the family members inside.
Beaulieu has to push his lawnmower over each curb to mow the little plot of grass inside. Mower blades regularly clang off the concrete curbs like orchestra’s cymbals.
Beaulieu said blades have to be sharpened at least once a week. “It never ends.”
In other words, while the owners of these plots presumably frolic in the firmament above, it’s hell trying to keep their graves tidy.
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Rene Jamieson is a St. John’s Anglican Cathedral member and the cemetery’s resident tour guide. Her tours aren’t quiet, sedate walkabouts. Jamieson attacks her role with gusto.
“Don’t worry about walking on graves,” she says, noticing our hesitant steps. “You can’t help it.”
Jamieson’s tour includes stops at headstones with names such as:
● Margaret Scott (d. 1931, age 76). “She was known as the angel of the slums” for her work among destitute families in Winnipeg, said Jamieson. She founded the Margaret Scott Nursing Mission.
● Mary Jones (d. 1836, age 31). The settlement’s first school teacher. Jones was the wife of Rev. David Jones and fought to have girls receive the same education as boys, which was nearly a subversive concept back then. A plaque in her memory donated by her students is mounted inside the cathedral.
● James Ashdown (d. 1924, age 80). Known as “the Merchant Prince,” Ashdown was a tinsmith who walked from St. Cloud, Minn., to the Red River Settlement, and started a hardware store on Main Street in 1868. It would become one of the largest enterprises in Canada. The Ashdown stores continued in the family until 1971. Ashdown also served as Winnipeg’s mayor (1907-08). His headstone is one of the tallest and grandest in the cemetery.
● James A. Richardson Sr. (d. 1939, age 54). He was the patriarch of James Richardson & Sons Ltd. and an aviation pioneer after whom Winnipeg’s international airport is named. It’s a distinguished family plot, but quiet, not ostentatious — exactly what you would expect from the Richardsons. The patriarch’s gravestone has the Royal Air Force motto: “Per ardua ad astra” in Latin, meaning “Through adversity to the stars.”
● John Christian Schultz (d. 1896, age 56). Schultz was Louis Riel’s political arch-rival. He worked to overthrow Riel’s provisional government, taunting him with editorials in the Nor’wester newspaper, which Schultz owned, and inciting anger in Eastern Canada against Riel. He was Rush Limbaugh without the off switch. He drove Riel batty.
“The guy was a low-life. He was a slug,” Jamieson said.
A more recent interment is Lindor Reynolds, former Winnipeg Free Press columnist, who died Oct. 17, 2014, at 56. She is buried on an old Currie family plot, a long-standing Manitoba family, of which she is a descendant. Her grave is marked with a stone angel, after the eponymous novel by Margaret Laurence.
The cemetery’s oldest headstone is for George Simpson, the eight-month-old, first-born of Sir George Simpson, governor of the Hudson’s Bay Co. “The Little Emperor of the Plains,” as Jamieson sarcastically calls the father. But a letter in the Hudson’s Bay archives shows Simpson to be a truly heartbroken by the death of his son who died April 22, 1832.
It highlights a problem: where are the grave markers from 1812-31? There is not one from that period when the Selkirk Settlers arrived.
First, the initial grave markers would have been made of wood, which is not durable. Second, the flood of 1826 struck. It was the largest recorded flood in the history of the Red River, 30 per cent larger than the 1997 “Flood of the Century.” It washed everything away.
Why there are no grave markers from 1826-31 is more cloudy. Perhaps the land wasn’t deemed suitable after flooding. Even today, gravediggers will hit water and have to pump out the hole because there are creeks running beneath the cemetery.
Jamieson’s personal favourites in the cemetery include John Peter Pruden, Colin Inkster, and John Norquay.
She likes Pruden (d. 1890, at age 90) because he brought his pet dog and duck to church on Sundays. He left them outside, presumably tethered, during the service. Jamieson also likes him because his gravestone lists his Cree “country wife” Nancy. His European wife, Ann Armstrong, is not mentioned. All records show Ann resented Nancy and literally hissed at her Métis stepchildren.
Inkster was Assiniboia’s sheriff for 52 years. He is said to have skipped 1,000 times a day with a rope to keep in shape. He lived to age 91 and it wasn’t disease or old age that killed him in 1934. He was out duck hunting at Delta Marsh when his cabin caught fire. He died of smoke inhalation.
The Inkster house he grew up in — it was built in the early 1850s — is now the Seven Oaks House Museum. Inkster Boulevard is believed to have been named after him, although J.B. Rudnyckyj, in his Mosaic of Winnipeg Street Names (1974), disputes that, claiming it was named after Colin’s father, John.
“He was a wit,” Jamieson said of Colin Inkster.
After a glowing eulogy at Schultz’s funeral that made the Riel-baiter out to be a saint instead of the rapscallion many thought he was, Inkster was heard to sum up public opinion of Schultz: “It was a pity we knew him.”
Norquay was Manitoba’s first homegrown premier. He was born in the Red River Colony in St. Andrews. He was of mixed-blood, as they called someone back then who was half aboriginal, half Scottish.
Norquay was premier from 1878-87. He died in 1889 at age 48.
His family was not well off, as the premier’s job did not pay well back then, but Norquay was so beloved the community raised funds to pay for his headstone. (That would be unheard of today, with the public’s low regard for politicians.)
Norquay’s headstone is appropriately made of locally quarried limestone, except for a red granite column imported from New Brunswick. It’s also one of the tallest and grandest monuments in the St. John’s graveyard.
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A man walked out of the cathedral and we struck up a conversation. He had been inside to clear up a bill for a relative’s burial.
I mentioned I was writing a piece on the cemetery; he mentioned he had numerous relatives buried there, including Colin Inkster.
The man’s name? Colin Inkster, Inkster’s great-grandson.
He said his father’s cousin, Myra Inkster, had died recently in Prescott, Ariz. Even though she lived in the United States most of her life, having moved to Milwaukee as a young nurse and marrying Jim Steinke, she wanted her ashes buried in St. John’s with her family plot.
Burials here are 5.5 feet deep for a single, eight feet down if you’re expecting company. But many of the burials now are of just the ashes. Those can be put in the family plot, buried two feet down.
That’s what Inkster chose for his aunt and her husband, who died a year before her. To hire a reverend to deliver the eulogy would have cost $150, so he did it himself.
“They loved dogs, so we brought our three dogs with us,” said Colin, who’s 73. He paid $450 for the two-foot-deep hole for both Myra and Jim’s ashes. A flat stone, that would lay on the ground, with an inscription, cost a further $395.
The Inkster family is originally from Scotland’s Orkney Islands. Colin’s great-, great-grandfather John came to Canada in 1821 as a stone mason in the service of the Hudson’s Bay Co. Colin knew about his great-grandfather’s penchant for skipping rope but added he also used to walk from his Seven Oaks home — it’s at 1637 Main Street and is now a seniors drop-in centre — to the Law Courts on Broadway, and back, every day, rain or shine.
Inkster was a member of the Council of Assiniboia from 1857 to 1868, the equivalent of being an MLA in the provincial government today.
Colin related a story his dad told him about the cemetery.
His dad was a young teenager when the cathedral was being built (on the site where the previous church was) in the mid-1920s. While digging the foundation, the work crew bore right through caskets and into bones of unmarked graves.
One evening, a gang of teenagers pushed Colin’s father into the hole as a joke. He described scrambling over the rotted caskets and bones trying to climb out but it was too deep. The youths above had a good laugh and eventually helped him out.
These were likely bones of the earliest Selkirk Settlers. It could very well have been they were graves made anonymous by the 1826 flood. The oldest headstones generally surround the cathedral.
Sheriff Inkster, Colin’s great-grandfather, was also good friends with Norquay, and they may have even been classmates while growing up, said Gerald Friesen, history professor emeritus at University of Manitoba.
Friesen, author of several books, including the acclaimed Canadian Prairies: A History, is writing a book about Norquay.
Friesen agrees history has overlooked Norquay and his contributions.
Norquay’s is an incredible story of the self-made man. A Métis and orphaned at five years of age, he went on to hold Manitoba’s highest office.
He ruled during the province’s expansion from its postage-stamp size, presided over the construction of railways, and steered the province through debates on religion and language.
His monument at St. John’s, unlike other large monuments, is not because he was rich. It was because Manitobans stepped up.
Norquay’s family didn’t have the funds so legions of colonists put down their own money to pay for the monument. Contributions were limited to $1 so everyone would have a chance to donate.
The memorial was tendered and the winning bid came from Samuel Hooper and David Ede.
Hooper had been a stone mason and was trained as an architect. He would later become Manitoba’s first provincial architect. His works include St. Mary’s Academy, the Knox Presbyterian Church, the Merchant’s Hotel in downtown Selkirk, the Morden Court House, and the former Brandon Asylum for the Insane, now home to the Assiniboine Community College. Hooper is also buried in St. John’s.
The cost of the monument was $1,700. “It was designed to be a public testimony and memorial,” said Friesen.
Canon Edward Matheson delivered the eulogy, as recorded by the Manitoba Daily Free Press in August 1891. He said the real monument wasn’t the stone one on the grave site, but the scores of people whose lives had been touched by Norquay and who loved him.
“If you seek his monument, look around you. Look at the hearts which he won and welded around his own; look at the host of personal friends which he bound to him with ties that even death could not sever. What accomplished that? It was his great-heartedness, his unselfish nature, the charm of his personal qualities.
“On the platform… we admired him; in his office or his home, and in our homes we loved him. In public, he was a power to admire; in private, he was a pleasure to enjoy. Genial and kindly in manner, a mirthful and interesting companion, a staunch friend, we can never forget him…”
Updated on Monday, July 18, 2016 6:19 AM CDT: Adds photo