This historic Portland cemetery was the final resting place of over a thousand 19th century Irish men, women, and children. A “Catholic Ground” was designated by 1843, when one Mary Dickey, age 20 days, was interred at the site. But those designated Catholics were being buried here soon after the cemetery opened in 1829. Earlier Catholics had been interred in Eastern Cemetery, near the foot of Munjoy Hill. From the 1830s until the 1850s the Portland Irish were buried here and during the “Famine Decade” (1845-1855) a majority of them were the children of famine immigrants who had come to Portland to find peace, solace, and security within St. Dominic’s Catholic Church and Parish. A perusal of the cemetery records shows just how high the infant mortality rate had risen by the mid-19th century, especially if you were Irish. For instance Peter, Edward, Katie, Mary, Margaret, and Robert Walsh, children of Patrick and Johanna, all died under the age of two and were buried in the Catholic Ground.
In August 1858, an official Catholic cemetery, Calvary, was opened in Cape Elizabeth (now South Portland) and consecrated by Bishop David William Bacon, the first bishop of the Diocese of Portland. The vast majority of local Catholics were now interred here. There were a few Irish families, such as the Somers, who continued to be buried in Western Cemetery until the 20th century. Beginning in November 1858, numerous Catholic families were disinterred and removed to Calvary Cemetery from Western Cemetery. Although only 55 individuals were officially recorded as coming from Western Cemetery, cross-referencing the records of both cemeteries would indicate a much higher number of such removals.
The Catholic Ground, with only about sixty headstones now standing, was not recognized as such until 1999, when the local Ancient Order of Hibernians (Daniel O’Connell O’Donoghue Division) had a stone erected to not only mark this sacred site, but to also commemorate the Famine Irish. A Catholic Mass was celebrated by several local priests, and with a contingent of the Knights of Columbus, and over a hundred people watching, the stone was dedicated August 15, 1999. Now a mass is said here each year on or about the aforementioned date.
For more information on this site, see “The Western Cemetery Project, 1997-2001, Irish-American History,” (Ancient Order of Hibernians, Portland, ME, 2001, reprint 2005).