Diocese works on digitizing records in 16 Catholic cemeteries

Dennis McCarthy – US Congressman and NY Lieutenant Governor. He was the owner of a successful salt works and for over 40 years, one of Upstate NY’s largest employers. He died in 1886 and is buried in St. Agnes Cemetery, Syracuse.

Steve Charles (Lefty) Kraly (died March 7, 2016) was a Major League Baseball pitcher who played five games for the New York Yankees in 1953, compiling a 0–2 record, with a 3.24 ERA over 25 innings. He batted and threw left-handed. His baseball card was blown up and put on the lid to his vault with the old Yankees Top Hat logo and the blue and white pinstripe paint. – Buried in Calvary Cemetery in Johnson City, NY.

Christopher Joseph Gedney was an American college and professional football player who was a tight end in the National Football League for six seasons. He played college football for Syracuse University, and earned All-American honors. He played professionally for the Chicago Bears and Arizona Cardinals of the NFL. Wikipedia.

Born: August 9, 1970, Wilmington, DE, Died: March 9, 2018, Syracuse, NY – Buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery, DeWitt

May 23, 2023

By Eileen Jevis

For families and friends of a deceased loved one, gravestones provide a memorial that will last for centuries. They also act as a valuable source of information for descendants who are interested in tracing their ancestry. Catholic Cemeteries of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Syracuse, Inc. includes 16 cemeteries that date to the 1800s. The oldest gravesite, dated 1830, is in St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Johnson City. 

Upon their founding, each cemetery created its own records-management systems, including unique mapping and documentation materials. Over the years, some of this information has been destroyed in fires and flooding, and by decay. In recent years, the cemetery team has created standards for documentation and record-keeping, ensuring that modern data is consistent and thorough across all diocesan cemeteries.  Through digitalization, all records will be accessible and searchable by the public, including loved ones wishing to stay connected to and memorialize their family members. Digitalization ameliorates the risk from fire, flood and decay ensuring the records are available in perpetuity.

For four years, the diocesan cemetery team has worked to compile comprehensive electronic records for those buried in their cemeteries located in Broome, Cortland, Oneida, Onondaga and Oswego Counties. To date, 11 cemeteries have been completed. The remaining five — St. Agnes in Syracuse, Calvary and St. Patrick’s in Johnson City, St. Mary’s in Cortland and St. Mary’s in Clayville will be completed by the end of 2023.

It has been a grueling process with some cemetery maps and handwritten records missing or illegible. Out-of-date records sometimes don’t reflect graves that have been added or removed. Other maps don’t reference lot numbers, but instead reference the position of the lot based on a landmark, explained Tina Smith, Family Service Manager. “The records may state that a particular grave is four paces from the oak tree and that tree may no longer be there,” she said. “Each cemetery’s record-keeping methodology is different both between cemeteries and within the same cemetery depending on the employees who worked there at the time.” 

Working with cemetery software vendor webCemeteries, Inc., the team utilized Google Earth, newspaper archives, ancestry.com, www.findagrave.com and a host of other resources to validate or complete data records to identify the deceased. 

The vendor scans burial records, and the cemetery team scans other documents such as contracts and monument applications and enters the information into the webCemeteries system. If there is not enough information to assign a lot number to the deceased, the cemetery staff will walk the cemetery grounds and review the layout and stones placed in that location. “The cemetery team also takes photographs of monuments, crypt and niche fronts to add to the cemetery lot record,” explained Smith.

The team is currently researching the graves of veterans to catalog their location and information. “It’s a subject very dear to me and to other staff across our diocesan cemeteries,” said Smith. “We are trying to capture the branch of service, the wars in which they fought, and any medals or commendations that were bestowed on our service men and women.” 

“Our veterans and their stories are often remarkable and touching,” added Smith. “It is interesting to read about people who you might consider having lived an ordinary life but had a long-lasting impact on their family and community. We want to provide a space where family can share stories and visit and remember their loved ones.” 

Visit the diocesan cemetery website at www.syracusecatholiccemeteries.org and select menu option “Locate a Loved One” to find the records of your family and friends.  There is also an online form available to share a memory or upload a photo or video. The team will review submissions for appropriateness.  

The vision of the Catholic Cemeteries is to provide a welcoming, enduring place of inspiration, comfort, respect and love where people can honor and remember,” said Smith. “Our team is dedicated to helping people find the burial place for those souls who have been entrusted to us.”

Smith said she recently sold a monument for a person who was laid to rest in 1918. “The most rewarding days of work for me are when I can help a family who has lost one of the most important pieces of their family history. Families are still trying to connect with their past. For me, putting together a complete picture of a soul in our cemetery is a way to honor that person forever.” 


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