The Final Resting Place
By Jackie Nickel
What started out as a brief story about my phone call from a distant relative has resulted in a five-part series on the search for my great grandmother Mary Nickel’s grave. Last episode I wrote about finding her death certificate in the state archives but being unable to discover the cemetery where she was buried. That segment brought a few more helpful phone calls and emails that led me to the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s main branch on Cathedral St. last week. Mission: To view microfilm from the Sunpapers’ archives and find my great grandmom’s obituary which would list her interment site.
I found a parking spot at a meter right in front of the library a week ago Tuesday, however there was a half hour limit. Never mind, I’ll work fast I thought depositing two quarters. Through the revolving doors, my first stop was the information desk, but on my way I had to slow down and admire the beautiful architecture inside and out. I hadn’t been to the Pratt since I did a 100th anniversary history book for Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church over a dozen years ago.
Five minutes was used up on the parking meter before I was directed to the Periodical area where old newspaper information is stored. A gentleman there showed me to the proper drawer where the early 1900’s Sun microfilm is stored. I found the 1911 (the year Mary died) reel and hurried to a viewer only to fumble the thread of the microfilm. Rats! I had to ask for help. The library assistant was busy with another patron and I had to wait a few minutes before she came over to thread the machine. Twenty minutes to go on the meter.
I quickly found the Sept. 9 (the date she died) issue and proceeded to scroll through the next day’s pages, figuring her obituary would get in a day or two after her death. The front page was pretty interesting with ads for local vaudeville theaters running down the left hand side so I looked to see if any of the ones my grandfather had owned were listed. He ran the Monumental and Folly for a while before he bought the Gayety and I was happy to see the Monumental advertised. On to other pages, but not so fast. As a 20-year local newspaper veteran, I couldn’t help but notice the informal writing style which graced the aged pages. There seemed to be little attempt to hide editorialization in news stories but the inside features were on the verge of scandalous! One article informed readers how Ms. So and So, who was seeing a prominent widower, was snubbed at a public function by his deceased wife’s friends. The Society pages even described details of the ladies’ outfits and menus presented at each social event. Here and there among the articles were a couple obituaries so it seemed they were not all grouped together in the back of the paper as they are today.
No luck on Sept. 10, 11, 12, or 13th, so I was getting discouraged while also looking at my watch and thinking I should go outside and feed the meter. Reluctantly I started rewinding the reel but as I got back to Sept. 10 something made me slow down a bit. Right there in front of my eyes was a list of about eight obituaries and smack dab in the middle was the last name NICKEL. Just like all my other discoveries, it was divine providence I felt, squinting to get a close look at the screen. My great granny was listed as Anna Mary, not Mary A. as on her death certificate, but that was probably just a slip-up of the typesetter I thought as my journalistic mentality kicked into gear. She died at the home of her son John H., my grandfather, on S. Clinton St. and was “laid out” at the home of her other son John (there were two Johns and two Georges, remember) on Eastern Ave. A Requiem High Mass was to be celebrated at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church the next day, followed by burial at Holy Redeemer Cemetery at Belair and Moravia Rds.
I was so elated to find the info I’d been seeking! I quickly hit the button to print a copy of the obituary, rushed to the desk to pay my 21¢ (here’s a quarter, keep the change) and ran to the car just as the “violation” sign popped up on the parking meter. Back home I called the helpful folks at Sacred Heart of Jesus cemetery and lucky for me, they had possession of the Holy Redeemer records as well. A search for Mary Nickel’s grave location in Holy Redeemer, however, yielded nothing.
Oh no, I thought, it must be there. Maybe it was spelled wrong while being transcribed from handwritten records to the computer. There was, however, a Nickel gravesite with four interments listed: John, Anna, a baby Martha, and John Jr. This could be Mary’s second son John (for some reason he was known in the family as Noodle Soup John) and his wife Annie. But where was my Mary? The lady at SHJ said there were five graves in the lot. But only four were accounted for. Could my Mary be in the fifth and her records were lost?
I asked the location of the grave inside Holy Redeemer cemetery, which I’d never visited before. I had no idea how big it was. The SHJ lady described to me where the Nickel lot was in relation to the chapel and mausoleum and told me there was a headstone with the last name engraved. Maybe there were five first names instead of four on the stone, I thought.
By that time it was 3:30 p.m. and the sky was gloomy. Should I go to the cemetery now or wait ‘til tomorrow? It’s not in a very good area of the city, I mused, but that’s OK, I’ll take Sammy with me for protection. Off we went, my dog and I to a strange graveyard in quickly falling dusk. It was 4 o’clock by the time we drove through the narrow gatehouse. “Gates closed at 4:30” the sign said. I hurried up the hill toward the chapel and parked the car, leaving Sam inside. I walked up and around the mausoleum checking gravestones and dodging holes in the ground. It was a nice old cemetery but the terrain left a lot to be desired. As I stumbled on a rock and slipped in a swale I feared for a moment the ground might swallow me up. For the first time in my exploration I was scared.
There seemed to be no one else in the cemetery and I anxiously peered toward the gate. Suppose the caretaker came by and locked it, not knowing I was inside? I was almost too nervous to look for names and besides, some were so worn you could barely read them. Sam was watching me closely from the car and I dare not wander too far. It was 4:20 and getting darker by the minute. I was weaving frantically among the granite and limestone and slipping and sliding on the wet leaves scanning engraved names. I have to leave now, I told myself turning to go. And as providence would have it, there it was, NICKEL in gray granite about 20 feet away.
I rushed over and stood there staring at the names: John, Anna, Martha, John Jr. No Mary. I stood very still hoping to feel some vibes that she was actually under that earth and her name was somehow unintentionally omitted from the stone. I concentrated real hard, the wheels of my mind swiftly processing all the information I’d collected over the past two months. And I came to a conclusion: I think her body is laid to rest there in that lot. Mary would have been the first one to be buried there. Noodle Soup John and his wife died over 20 years later and that’s when the tombstone was erected I deduced by its design. Someone might have forgotten Mary was buried there.
So now, I thought, at least until I find out otherwise, I’ll have a grave on which to place my great grandmother’s Christmas flowers. I walked back to the car deep in meditation, oblivious to Sammy’s yapping and the encroaching darkness. I glided out of the gatehouse just as a woman carrying a big ring of keys was walking in.
Photo by Jackie Nickel The Roth family of Essex, the distant cousins who discovered our familial relationship, called and got me hooked on family history: Patti Roth Parker, Eleanor Roth and Kathy Roth Head. We recently met up at Schwartz’s Cemetery on O’Donnell St. where some of our mutual family is buried. The Roth ladies visit over a dozen cemeteries during the holiday season, placing flowers on the graves of 38 deceased relatives, many of whom they discovered during 22 years of genealogy research.
***POSTSCRIPT: After visiting the cemetery office a few weeks later, I found out my great grandmother Mary Nickel actually was buried in another grave site nearby the one described above. Four others are buried in the plot, all with the last name “Scherbel”. Another mystery evolves. Who were the Scherbels? Why was my great grandmother buried in their plot? An Anna Scherbel had died the year before my Mary at age 50 and that’s when the Holy Redeemer plot was purchased — for $50! The most comforting aspect of the discovery was the large Scherbel monument. Although the four Scherbel family members and the dates of their death were engraved in the granite, Mary Nickel’s name was not on the marker. But atop the tall gravestone is a large statue of the Blessed Virgin — Mary. On Christmas Eve 2000, I placed flowers there.
PPS: In July 2002, I reread some notes written by my mom shortly before she died in 1995. There she had written the names of Nickel ancestors, including her father’s sister Anna… who married a man named Scherbel! I’m now comforted in knowing that “my Mary” is buried alongside her daughter.