Approaching the bridge over the river, I noticed a gigantic star framework on top of the mountain, overlooking the town. Must be the famed “Star of Bethlehem.” I tried to get a photograph, but I didn’t want to rear-end the car ahead of me. It must look rather impressive lit up at night – the star, that is, not the bridge. A bit congested here, traffic-wise. The cemetery was about a mile to the left up Fourth Street after I crossed the Lehigh.
|St. Michael's Cemetery, Bethlehem, PA|
|Zinc grave marker|
St. Michael's history can be pieced together from short excerpts on the Internet – it was formerly the parish cemetery of St. Michael and then Holy Infancy, serving most of South Bethlehem’s Roman Catholics. The Lutheran church next to the cemetery has no affiliation with St. Michael's Cemetery, which is owned by the Holy Infancy Church (a few blocks west of the cemetery on Fourth Street).
To my surprise, an all-terrain jogger passed above me in the woods – some sort of trail up above. I wondered if he even knew the woods below him were filled with graves. I wondered if he even knew the cemetery was there, or the efforts of the Friends group in trying to keep the place safe for people like him. I quote from the Friends of Saint Michael's Cemetery Facebook page:
“Please join us in raising awareness of this important historical resource in our community and its urgent need for restoration.”
"St. Michael’s Cemetery is the resting place for immigrants who came to America in the 19th & 20th centuries, many of whom worked at Bethlehem Steel & other local industries. The land for the cemetery was donated by Asa Packer in 1867 to create the first burial place in Bethlehem consecrated for the interment of Catholics. SM is an excellent representation of the diverse cultures that built our community – more than 25 nationalities are buried at SM. The Cemetery is also known for the nationally-recognized work of famous American photographer, Walker Evans, who made a series of photos in the Lehigh Valley during his time with the Farm Security Administration. One of his most acclaimed prints, the iconic, “Graveyards, Houses, & Steel Mill, Beth, PA, Nov 1935,” was taken at SM."
|Walker Evans' 1935 photo above (ref), Ed Snyder's 2014 photo below|
Oh Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie ...
As I descended out of the trees into the open graveyard, the cold wind cut through my layers of clothing like I was wearing linen. It seemed colder than before. Fingertips numb inside my leather gloves, I balled them up to keep them warm. I glanced back and saw a female figure in the trees. It was a four-foot-high discolored marble mourning statue, a lone figure keeping her vigil over a lonely grave in the woods. This is, in fact, the last statue standing in the entire cemetery. I turned back downhill toward a tall monument with a circular platform at its top – what could this be? I was shocked to see these white marble angel wings sticking out of the ground; the statue itself likely six feet tall (or rather, long, at this point).
At the front of the cemetery, fragments of Victorian-era ornamental metal fencing still mark the entrances to family plots, and many plots have large obelisks and monuments. There are four family mausoleums at St. Michael's. While hundreds, maybe thousands of the graves here belong to poor steel mill workers and 1918 influenza victims, it’s obvious that many of those interred were rather well-to-do citizens of Bethlehem. Citizens whose history is lost to the ages, and most likely lost on the three high schools boys who passed me as they cut through the graveyard on their way home from school.
Far be it for me to be judgmental with regard to why this cemetery, this memory garden, is in such condition. There are reasons why damage occurs, and reasons why ongoing maintenance drops off. I don’t know the financial condition of the owner, Holy Infancy parish. But since this is not an active cemetery (i.e., there are no new burials), then there is no income. I believe there have been no burials since the 1960s. Should there be money in trust to provide perpetual care? Probably. But considering that burial records were not even kept for the first forty-five years of the cemetery's existence (between 1867 and 1912), there were probably no funds allocated for ongoing care of the first graves.
|Graves in the trees, St. Michael's Cemetery, Bethlehem, PA|
I see beauty everywhere, and St. Michael’s Cemetery is quite a show piece. It should also be treated by us, collectively, with greater respect. With ongoing efforts by the Friends of Saint Michael's Cemetery, it could very well become the Star of Bethlehem. If you would like to learn more, visit, or help with the stabilization and restoration of the cemetery, please visit the Friends of Saint Michael's Cemetery Facebook page (click here). To make donations to the upkeep of the cemetery, please visit the website of Holy Infancy Church.
References and Further Reading:
A Short History of Big Steel and Bethlehem
Bethlehem Historical Marker
Friends of Saint Michael's Cemetery