Calvary Cemetery, Milwaukee, WI

Although it didn’t start life as a Catholic cemetery, Calvary Cemetery in Milwaukee is now designated as the oldest Catholic cemetery in the city.


Calvary Cemetery Milwaukee WI

Among the many interred here are those who died in the Newhall House fire of 1883.

At 4:00 am on the morning of January 10, 1883, passersby saw flames shooting from one of Milwaukee’s landmarks. Built by merchant Daniel Newhall in 1856 as one of the nation’s most magnificent hotels, the Newhall House was still fashionable, though somewhat down at the heels.

The most famous guests staying in the hotel that night were perhaps General Tom Thumb and his wife. PT Barnum was in town with his circus. The pair were rescued by a fireman by the name of O’Brien, who tucked the tiny pair under his arm and climbed down a ladder to safety.

Memorial to Catholic victims of Newhall House fire in Calvary Cemetery Milwaukee WI

Another tragedy memorialised in Calvary Cemetery is the sinking of the Lady Elgin.

Just before midnight on September 7, 1860, a palatial sidewheel steamboat named the Lady Elgin left Chicago bound for Milwaukee. The almost 400 passengers on the steamer were returning from a long day’s outing. The Lady Elgin sighted the Augusta, a schooner filled with lumber, around 2:30 a.m. Visibility was poor; storm clouds raged and the waves were intense. The Augusta’s load of lumber shifted and the two boats collided. Within minutes the atmosphere on the Lady Elgin went from merriment to pandemonium. The Augusta, sustaining minimum damage, kept sailing to Chicago. With a large hole in its side, the Lady Elgin sank within a half hour.

Gravemarker for Mary, lost on the Lady Elgin in 1860 - Calvary Cemetery Milwaukee

Gravemarker for F. Casper, lost on the Lady Elgin in 1860 - Calvary Cemetery Milwaukee

Only three lifeboats were available. More than 300 died that evening, marking one of the worst tragedies to strike Lake Michigan.

Over on Jesuit Hill lie the remains of numerous clergy, most notably Fr Walter Halloran, a Jesuit who assisted in the only documented exorcism in US history, that of Roland Doe. The 1949  incident would later be the inspiration behind The Exorcist. The Cult of Weird has an interesting account of it all.

Grave of Jesuit Walter Halloran who witnessed the only documented exorcism in the USA - buried in Calvary Cemetery Milwaukee

Calvary Cemetery is a sprawling place, home to many of Milwaukee’s notables including Solomon Juneau and Thomas Shea. I thought briefly that Solomon might have given his name to Juneau, Alaska, but that was another Juneau, a miner by the name of Joe. Solomon left his mark though

He built Milwaukee’s first store and first inn, and was recognized for his leadership among newcomers to Milwaukee. In 1837 he started the Milwaukee Sentinel, which would become the oldest continuously operating business in Wisconsin.

The Sentinel is still operating today – there’s a legacy for you.

grave of Solomon Juneau at Calvary Cemetery Milwaukee

As is my habit, I was on the look out for Irish names. Many of those that died in the Newhall House fire were Irish, as were many of those who perished aboard the Lady Elgin. One other notable internee, Thomas Shea, was on the Lady Elgin, too, but made it to shore. He was one of the organisers of the ill-fated voyage. Born in Ireland in 1832, Shea started life in Milwaukee as a labourer. He saw the writing on the wall though and recognised the importance of the nascent rail industry. He set up his own freight company in 1855 and would go on to become one of the richest men in the city. I love it when one of the boys makes good.

Grave of Thomas Shea, Calvary Cemetery Milwaukee

Another Irish boy who made good was Patrick Drew. Born in Ireland in 1829, Drew emigrated to New York when he was 19 where he learned his trade as a builder. He moved West in 1954 to Milwaukee where he was charged with overseeing construction of many of the city’s bridges and public buildings. His gravestone was commissioned by one Ellen Drew, thought to be his wife, or perhaps his daughter. The bronze-plated angel is by a Polish Sculptor, Joseph Aszklar. Note the missing hand – supposedly it once held a cross – but who knows.

I’d seen Aszklar’s work before, at Holy Hill where he carved the 14 stations of the cross.  The man was gifted. There’s an interesting account of his life by Anna Passante in the St Francis Historical Society newsletter. And to show just how much these cemetery visits teach me, I learned a new word: Nojoshing comes from the Chippewa word, Neiashing meaning “straight tongue”.

I was a little startled to see a headstone for my namesake  – it certainly gave me pause for thought and had me wondering just how much I could cram into the dash that’ll go between my dates.

If you’re in the vicinity, it’s worth a visit. Download the self-guided tour before you go – it’ll make life a lot easier.

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