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Two cemeteries, within a mile of each other, in Chelsea, Quebec, are current success stories.

Nestled in the Gatineau Hills, half an hour’s drive from Canada’s capital, the villages of Chelsea and Old Chelsea offer a gateway to recreation in the National Capital Commission’s Gatineau Park, and a pleasant village core area for residents and visitors to the Municipality of Chelsea.

Gates, Old Chelsea Protestant Burial Ground. (Photo - Carol Martin)Fifty years ago, two Protestant cemeteries in these villages were overgrown and apparently abandoned. Their sad condition was not unique, as provincial legislation began in 1900 addressing how to appoint successors to cemeteries held in the name of non-Catholic (Protestant) religious congregations, and in later years referenced “disused and abandoned cemeteries.” In Chelsea, informal groups (family-led, or a committee of several persons), which had successfully established and maintained these cemeteries in the 1800s, were unable to meet their needs by the mid-1900s. Lack of maintenance was a symptom of other problems: organization, information and documentation were also lacking.

What changed this, and how did the change happen? Untended property in or near a village centre does get some attention, and in the 1950s several concerned individuals approached municipal officials and the National Capital Commission. Also, a local historical society was founded in 1962, and its members took an interest in these old cemeteries. Formal organizations picked up where early community leaders and informal leadership had left off. Interest in important personages helped in both cases—fortunately, it was clear that at least one “person of interest” was buried in each of the neglected cemeteries.

The private burial place, now known as the Chelsea Pioneer Cemetery, was still in the hands of a descendant of the Church family who had established the original burial place on the property, when the historical society became interested in it as the site of a hero’s grave. In 1956, the centenary of the Victoria Cross raised interest in other wartime awards of that era, including the Queen’s Scarf. Queen Victoria crocheted eight scarves, awarded for heroism during the Boer War, and one of the recipients was a Canadian serving with the Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR). When the grave of Private Richard Rowland Thompson was located in this disused graveyard in Chelsea, it was clearly time for local history buffs to take action.

The owner of the land was pleased to sell the burial site to the historical society, along with a new right-of-way as access and some additional space for parking, all for $1000, in 1966. (One of the problems faced by owners of properties that contain burial grounds is how to discontinue taking responsibility for them.) With this new responsibility, the Gatineau Valley Historical Society became involved in maintenance, fund-raising efforts, and awareness raising. For more than twenty years, beginning in 1986, the Society has organized an annual Remembrance Day Service involving members of the RCR and the community. A cenotaph in this cemetery now commemorates Chelsea’s war dead from World Wars I and II, further enhancing its status as a place recalling the community’s military history. A sign and small garden at its entrance are inviting, and further signage, a cemetery plan and plaque within it inform the visitor about its history.

Still, after so much effort and care, in a sad incident in December 2006, seven of the fourteen tombstones in this cemetery were toppled or broken off their bases. Although the vandals were not caught, a fundraiser breakfast and public appeal raised money to repair the damaged graves, and the cemetery has been restored again.

Members of the Canadian armed forces take part at the Remembrance Day Service, Chelsea Pioneer Cemetery. (Photo - Carol Martin)Another local graveyard, the Old Chelsea Protestant Burial Ground, was in such poor repair by 1961 that a prominent Ottawan with a summer cottage in Chelsea wrote to the National Capital Commission suggesting that it create “a kind of imaginative memorial” by setting its tombstones into brick walls enclosing a small garden.(1) Although the NCC did not own the property, its historians had noted that Thomas Wright (died 1802), one of Hull’s founders, was buried in this cemetery—another case where a famous personage saved the day. The Commission did not wish to acquire the cemetery, but it began carrying out simple maintenance (it owned adjoining property).

Volunteers from a genealogy society (the Ottawa Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society) compiled lists of names on the gravestones, and also visited the Church family burial ground and made a listing for it.(2) Ownership was unclear, and involved legal searches to follow up inheritance of the cemetery property. It took years, but the Municipality of Chelsea now owns and maintains this burial place. Attractive bilingual signage marks the cemetery entrance, and a plaque tells its history. This is Chelsea’s oldest cemetery, and the burial place of the community’s founders. Its strategic location, near shops in the heart of Old Chelsea, attracts visitors on a daily basis.

The Municipality of Chelsea enacted bylaws declaring Chelsea Pioneer Cemetery and the Old Chelsea Protestant Burial Ground to be historical monuments, as of 1989.

If you are now thinking that it has taken enormous effort to save and revive these two Chelsea cemeteries, you are right! And it took a long time, and a great deal of patience and perseverance.

But isn’t it a wonderful success story, to have two preserved historic cemeteries part of the community once more?
Across Quebec, in villages and rural centres like Chelsea, our early cemeteries offer a treasure trove of historic information. We can begin by knowing what cemeteries exist in our own regions. We can help by gathering information about individuals and families buried in them, about the ownership of the property itself. We can help by making simple diagrams to record their geography, and by creating signage. We can form cemetery committees (municipal, attached to local history groups, sponsored by local churches) to manage these activities. We can look within and outside our communities, reminding ourselves and our visitors of this important part of our heritage. We can support and encourage each other in saving our cemetery heritage.

Although this discussion has focused on two Protestant cemeteries, St. Stephen’s Roman Catholic Cemetery (also in Old Chelsea, and dating from 1842) is an active burial site, retaining a core of early grave monuments, while adding new burials and changing with the times. Its survival has necessitated adaptation and improved organization. By the 1970s, memory had failed its administrators, who had only sketchy notes for its plot locations, and they embarked on a survey and created plot maps, and began formalizing a series of rules and rental payments. Its regulation does not necessarily preserve its cemetery’s history and heritage (for example, modern monuments are infilling plots in its historic section), but it is maintained and financially viable.

1. NCC files. Letter, December 12, 1961, to Lt-General S.F. Clark, Chairman, NCC, from John Starnes (then Acting Assistant Under Secretary of State for External Affairs, although the letter was sent as a private individual).
2. Later, a GVHS member (myself) researched burial records along with tombstone data and other information, including burials without grave markers.

Carol Martin is a director of the Gatineau Valley Historical Society. She is author of In Memory of Chelsea's Historic Cemeteries (2005) and editor of Up the Gatineau!, the annual journal of the GVHS.