Headstone ‘doctor’ makes stop at St. Patrick’s Cemetery

Posted September 14, 2020

This article originally appeared in the Montana Standard.  Written by Tracy Thornton.

Jonathan Appell is not the lead singer in a rock band, nor is he a motivational speaker standing behind a podium, but he is currently on a 48-state tour.  

His stage is not a concert hall, nor is it front and center in a theatre.  

No, Appell’s preferred platform is the cemetery, and headstone restoration is his forte. He is conducting “48 workshops in 48 states” and Friday’s stop was at the historic St. Patrick’s Cemetery.  

Appell couldn’t have chosen a better place.  

The cemetery is practically a “who’s who” of Butte history. From dignitaries to convicted murderers and everyone in between — they are all buried within its grounds.  

“Every part of this country has its own history,” said Appell. “It makes it more interesting.”  

The main objective of the free workshop was to educate others on the different ways to handle common headstone repairs and in turn, do it themselves.

That education started just after 9 a.m. Friday, with an overview on historic preservation.  

Appell, who founded Atlas Preservation, a monument and building restoration supply company based out of Connecticut, was pleasantly surprised at the crowd size, which was approximately 50 people.

Some in the outdoor audience were there to learn more about repairing their own ancestral headstones; others were looking for tips to improve a specific cemetery.  

Appell delivered on his promise of “something for everyone to learn” as he moved on to talk about the decades-old material used to build these monuments, which included granite, marble or sandstone.  

“The old adage ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ is totally true,” said Appell, who has been a monument conservator since 1986.  St. Patrick’s definitely provided plenty of material to work with.

In fact, Butte’s first Catholic cemetery has numerous styles of headstones and depending on the era, they include pillar, art-deco, cylinder, and tree-stump, just to name a few.  

The men that form the Butte chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians have done a phenomenal job of restoring the historic cemetery. But not even these men can perform miracles.

Time and more importantly, the elements, have taken their toll on many of these headstones.  According to Appell, cold winters are partially to blame, along with excess moisture and pollution, which Butte has had its fair share of.  

“Marble is much more sensitive to weathering in general,” said Appell. “Other stones are sensitive as well.”  

He went on to explain that marble in particular can become weak, crumbly and more brittle.

Pollution has greatly affected some of these headstones,” explained Appell. “It’s not as strong as it was when it was first quarried.”  

Appell obviously had already toured the cemetery prior to the workshop and had specific headstones to use as examples.

Some gravesites had sunk and according to Appell, need to be reconstructed.  

“It takes the right equipment and knowledge for that,” he advised.  

Obvious problems included headstones no longer bonded to its bases.

Others were leaning at a precarious angle or on some, the metal pining that is supposed to keep the headstone intact has given way.  

He also noted that while many of these headstones have lost their polish, there are tools to help combat it, along with a little elbow grease.  

“All are fixable,” he said.