Burial site of victims of orphanage fire a mystery
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — In 1905, a fire broke out at Raleigh’s Catholic orphanage, a blaze so terrible it forced priests to leap out of windows to safety below. Three young students sleeping inside that night found no easy escape, and the flames trapped them on the fourth-story roof.
Timothy Wallace, the oldest at 21, urged his young companions to leap 45 feet to the ground, where the priests were spreading mattresses to cushion their fall. He and the first boy jumped and landed with survivable injuries. But John Gladish, 16, took his plunge and missed the mattress altogether, dying from his injuries later that Sunday.
Gladish, whom the newspapers would describe as a “bohemian,” is one of few buried in the orphanage cemetery whose name and story survive into the 21st century. Nothing remains of their resting place, now an empty patch of woods on N.C. State University’s Centennial Campus.
Within sight of those woods, the Catholic diocese of Raleigh has opened Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral, its newest and grandest church topped with a copper dome that is visible for miles. But since the cathedral’s dedication, I’ve heard several people wonder what happened to the orphans’ graveyard. What became of the first Catholics to occupy that patch of land off Western Boulevard? Where is John Gladish, the silent witness to a century?
The clearest answer: Forgotten. Here is the cloudy explanation I could find.
In the early 1980s, Dean Ruedrich would take walks through the graveyard while a student at N.C. State University. The orphanage had already been shuttered by then, a memory so distant that 200 of its alumni gathered for a reunion in 1982, some of them old enough to recall babies being abandoned on porches during the Great Depression.
The place had also become fodder for ghost stories, especially the legend of orphans’ ghosts wailing out on “Crybaby Lane,” where they had been victims in a fire. This tale still circulates around Halloween, full of historical inaccuracies.
But Ruedrich considered the cemetery, also abandoned by then, a curiosity. Among the 20 or 30 stones he found, this detail stuck with him: Three of the people buried beneath them had died on Christmas Day.
So 30 years later, long after he started his career in historic preservation, Ruedrich was working to repair stones in Mt. Hope Cemetery after a tornado had swept through Southeast Raleigh. While he worked, a pair of visitors walked up, confused, and asked if he knew how to find the old Catholic orphanage graves. He remembered the Christmas stones and went looking.
The fields he walked as a student were long gone, replaced by campus buildings and busy streets. The Catholic diocese had sold the land in 1988, and Ruedrich hardly recognized it. He compared aerial maps of Raleigh and traced the graveyard, he thought, to the corner of Main Campus Drive and Partners Way.
I walked those woods last week and found, among some beer bottles, what looked like pieces of quarried stone - probably the remains of old orphanage buildings. But except for a few rocks - crude markers? - nothing suggested an orphan’s grave.
“It kind of stuck in my craw,” Ruedrich said. “The Catholic church was entrusted with them physically, and, once they died, with their souls.”
Ruedrich called the diocese, and so did I. Both of us were told at first that the graves had been moved to St. Matthew Church in far north Durham. But when I visited St. Matthew, I found only a handful of tombs older than the 1980s - too new for the orphans. Also, that cemetery didn’t open until 1997.
So I called Monsignor Gerald Lewis in Raleigh, who told me he had misremembered their location - understandable after so many years. He directed me to St. Joseph’s Cemetery in New Bern, and I asked if the stones had moved with the orphans.
“To my knowledge,” he said, “there were no stones.”
I told him about Ruedrich’s walk through the graveyard in the early 1980s, only a few years before the church sold the land, and his memory of the three Christmas graves. Lewis promised to look for the relevant documents.
Cemetery records are far easier to trace than they were even a decade ago. The website findagrave.com offers a quick guide to famous graves and a near-complete inventory of many obscure cemeteries. Newspaper archives are easily searchable at the state library and, even easier, through newspapers.com.
Also, state law provides guidelines for relocating graves, including public notice, archaeologists’ surveys and an exhaustive search for next-of-kin. I have heard differing accounts of how much churches are exempt from those laws.
But in only a few days, I found an account of Geraldine Raymark dying at the orphanage at age 9, falling into a bonfire in 1934. She died of her burns and was buried there. I learned from her obituary that “little boy playmates will be pallbearers.” Harry Stewart wrote a book about his time at the orphanage during the Depression, where he met his wife, Teresa. Into her 90s, Teresa Stewart remembered praying for Geraldine.
But in that wealth of information, I could find nothing about where Geraldine Raymark or John Gladish are resting now.
I drove to St. Joseph’s in New Bern on Monday. In the section reserved for cremated remains, I found Sister Mary Annunciata Colton, a nun who died of pneumonia at the orphanage in 1934. On Christmas Day. I also found Patrick Cosgrove, listed in the 1910 census as as a Catholic student, who died at age 25. On Christmas Day.
And near them, I found 14 stone blocks marked only with a golden cross. No third Christmas grave. No John Gladish. No Geraldine Raymark.
Inside, the courteous staff at St. Paul’s Catholic Church told me they didn’t think they had the orphans in New Bern. They gave me access to the file cabinet full of records, where I failed to find a single document related to the Catholic orphanage. Not even Sister Mary Colton, whose name appears on a plaque in the church cemetery, shows up in the church records.
Are those 14 graves from the orphanage? Almost certainly. But who are they? Does anyone know who is resting underneath them? Were the graves marked in Raleigh? If so, where are the markers? If not, how does the diocese know every grave got moved? Is John Gladish one of them?
I am hopeful that somewhere, a document explains all this.
But in the meantime, I believe the orphans deserve some sort of memorial - a monument in Raleigh and in New Bern. They had hard lives. They deserve some lasting tribute.
“This is the last physical reminder on Earth of this person,” Ruedrich reminded. “It’s important.”
Information from: The News & Observer, http://www.newsobserver.com