This article originally appeared on nbcmontana.com. Written by Kevin Maki.
BUTTE, Mont. — Cemeteries are like history books.
Every headstone, whether grand or modest, tells a story.
Saint Patrick’s Cemetery in Butte has too many stories to count.
In recent years, the old Catholic cemetery had fallen into disrepair.
But there’s a major effort to change that.
Jonathan Appell is a nationally known monuments conservator.
NBC Montana recently met Appell as he conducted a free workshop at Saint Patrick’s Cemetery.
He’s conducting sessions like this all over the country.
“I reached out to people I knew from the Montana Historical Society,” he said. “They facilitated this location.”
“I’m going to every state in America to teach people how to repair and preserve gravestones and monuments,” he said.
In Butte, he found there was no shortage of students.
People who wanted to learn more about cemetery renovation came from all over southwest Montana.
“There are hundreds and thousands of stones in every town,” said Appell. “If they are ever going to be re-set, restored or made stable it has to be done locally.”
The AOH is a Catholic fraternal organization.
Saint Patrick’s is owned by the Catholic Diocese of Helena.
For years now, with support from the Diocese, the Ancient Order of Hibernians has been working to renovate the cemetery.
The AOH welcomed Appell to learn everything they could to help them in their efforts.
“He’s doing it on site with hands-on instruction as to what can be done,” said Phil Telling, “safe ways to do it, easiest ways without bringing in a lot of mechanized equipment.”
“It was so rundown and so let go for so many years,” said another AOH member, John Mulcahy. “We’re doing our best to try to get it where it’s looking good and trying to make it safe. We’re filling in gopher holes and stuff,” he said, “making it safe for anyone who comes out here.”
“We’ve probably backfilled between 200 and 300 graves,” said Telling, “and we probably have that many more to do.”
Appell spent part of the day teaching his students how to properly level a headstone that had sunk into the ground.
He showed them how to gently clean stones, washing years of grime away.
Butte’s mining past is embedded into many of these old tombstones.
“And what would have been a natural inversion,” said Appell, “and all the pollution that was in the air from earlier times.”
He said pollution and water are hard on headstones.
Telling said the cemetery hadn’t had water for 30-years.
Last year, the Hibernians got a water line back into the cemetery.
But its use will be limited.
“We don’t have any intention of irrigating it,” said Mulcahy. “We just want to get it where we have some plots with grass on them.”
“We’ll probably never be able to put a spray system in,” said Telling. “But we can use the water for the graves. We’ll re-seed them to get those graves well underway for grass.”
Few people are buried in the old cemetery anymore.
“You can’t buy a plot,” said Mulcahy. “But if you have a family plot and you have a spot you can be buried here.”
He stood by his own family’s gravesites.
Here, there’s a long line of Mulcahy names.
“This here is my father Maurice Mulcahy,” said John. “And I got his mother, his father and some aunts and uncles.”
Butte historian Jim McCarthy stood before his family’s headstones.
“I’m by my grandparent’s graves,” he said, “and my aunts and uncle.”
Jim knows almost every inch of the cemetery.
There’s a whole section for nuns and priests.
McCarthy shows us a magnificent mausoleum where Daniel J. Hennessey is interred.
“He came to Butte and started a merchandising company called Hennessey’s, “he said, “which became one of the big retail outlets in the state.”
He shows us Manus Dugan’s grave.
Dugan was a hero in the Granite Mountain Speculator Mine Fire, the worst underground hard rock mining tragedy in United States history.
Dugan died in that disaster in 1917.
But he saved 28 men from death.
“He bulkheaded himself into a portion of the mine,” said Jim, “and saved these miners.”
There are scores of military veterans buried here, and way too many children.
“There’s Arthur O’Leary who was just a baby,” said McCarthy. “He was only four years old.”
It’s not unusual to see ages like that here.
There are many babies buried at Saint Patrick’s.
Overlooking Copper King Marcus Daly’s nephews grave, which used to be enclosed in glass, you will see an angel with broken wings.
But referring to the old Jimmy Stewart movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, Telling said “just like at Christmas time, the angel gets her wings. She’ll get her wings back.”
Appell said as historic cemeteries like Saint Patrick’s saw fewer and fewer burials there was a tendency to let them go.
But he sees that changing.
“There’s kind of a resurgence of interest in trying to preserve the past,” he said.
The crowd that came to learn more about that preservation may be strong evidence that it’s true.
Butte, ‘The Mining City, The Richest Hill on Earth,’ is a place that’s always had especially strong ties to its past, embracing its life force and honoring its dead.