PAWTUCKET — An army of volunteers is expected to arrive at the Old St. Mary's Cemetery on George Street tomorrow morning with a single objective in mind: putting a fresh coat of paint on the roughly 675 posts and 1,429 rails of the wrought iron fence that surrounds the historic cemetery.
The paint-a-thon will kick off at 10 a.m. and will continue "until the job is done," says resident Dennis Keough, who along with another resident, Tom Rogers, have spent the better part of two years caring and maintaining the cemetery, located across the street from the Irish Social Club.
"We've got about 150 people who have agreed to help out, but anyone who wants to join us can stop by any time and lend a hand," says Keough.
Volunteers will be given brushes, rollers and paint, all of which were donated by the Sherwin-Williams paint store on Newport Avenue. Pawtucket-based Excellent Coffee Co. will be providing volunteers with hot coffee.
After the job is done, a small reception with refreshments and open to the public will be held across the street at the Irish Social Club, Keough said.
“We've got about $2,000 worth of supplies to get the job done,” says Keough.
Keough and Rogers have been doing their best to maintain the cemetery over the past two years, cutting the grass and doing other chores. But the big problem was the fence, which was rusted and in a general state of disrepair.
So, the two men, joined by other members other Friends of the Old St. Mary's Cemetery, set out on a summer-long project to grind, sand and prime the fence and get it ready for a new coat of paint.
“There were only a handful of us doing it, but we got it done and we did it right,” says Keough.
Keough and Rogers became the adoptive caretakers of the cemetery after they realized just how historically significant the burying ground was. The Old St. Mary's Cemetery on George Street is unique in that it is the only cemetery that is owned by the Parish and not the diocese. It is also the final resting place of Irish patriots James McNally Wilson and John Gordon and 14 veterans of the Civil War.
James McNally Wilson was one of the seven Irish rebels rescued from an Australian prison by Irish Americans on the whaling ship Catalpa out of New Bedford in 1876. Wilson lived out the remainder of his life in the Blackstone Valley section of Rhode Island, and is buried in Pawtucket.
John Gordon was the last man executed by the State of Rhode Island under questionable circumstances back in 1845. Gordon was an Irish immigrant who was hanged for allegedly murdering Amasa Sprague, brother of one Rhode Island governor and father of another. To this day, questions remain about Gordon’s guilt considering the climate in which he was convicted. In 2011, Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed a proclamation at the Old State House formally pardoning Gordon.
“With such a rich history, the cemetery was really in bad shape. It was a mess,” says Keough, who was born and raised in Pawtucket. “So, we befriended the pastor and we've been sort of the caretakers for the past two years. All we really want is to bring attention to the cemetery so that people realize its historical significance.”
Volunteers are also raising funds to buy a new lawn tractor, which will allow Keough and Rogers to properly care for the property, which is about three acres bordered by Grace Street, George Street, Delaney Street and Pine Street.
Donations can be sent to Old St. Mary's Cemetery, 103 Pine St., Pawtucket, RI 02860.