Richmond’s earliest Roman Catholic residents — primarily Irish and French immigrants, with a small number of English — had buried in St. John’s churchyard and then in Shockoe Hill Cemetery. Only after 1834, with the opening of the city’s first Catholic parish, St. Peter’s Church on Grace Street, would the Diocese of Richmond’s leaders turn toward establishing their own consecrated burial site.
In the early 1840s, the diocese acquired land to the city’s north near Mechanicsville Turnpike for use as a seminary. Though the school would not last, the grounds were retained and a portion used as a cemetery for parishioners of St. Peter’s Church. The burial ground became known as Bishop’s Cemetery with upwards of four acres. On November 2, 1874, the cemetery was officially consecrated by then-Bishop James Gibbons, accompanied by a full procession of the city’s Catholics.
The cemetery served a large proportion of the city’s Irish population, and it drew substantial mortuary art. An investigation in the 1930s found that “Two large brick, stone capped pillars mark the original entrance to this cemetery which is slightly at right angles to Bowling Green Road and facing east.” This observer also found “two old stone vaults, one representing a miniature chapel, with wrought iron doors and mounted with a cross, the other of similar construction but built with a crypt that is several feet under the ground and the heavy iron doors embedded in the stone doorway, seem to mark the eastern and western line of the property.” At least three antebellum grave markers remained at that time, the earliest dating to 1850.
In 1869, the city directories identified John Purcell as superintendent of the cemetery, who was followed by John McGeary in 1876, indicating steady management. A superintendent’s house stood nearby.
As the number of Black Catholics grew in the city, the Diocese of Richmond established St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Jackson Ward in 1884 to serve that segregated community. In turn, the diocese made Bishop’s Cemetery available for burials from St. Joseph’s parish soon afterward. This shift spurred the diocese and white families to remove the remains of white Catholics from the grounds for reburial in Holy Cross and Mount Calvary cemeteries. And the old Bishop’s Cemetery became known as St. Joseph’s Cemetery, renowned as “one of the few in the state, for colored Catholics” in the words of the 1930s investigator.
Newspaper obituaries testify to steady burials of Black Catholics in the repurposed cemetery grounds. Burials there continued even after the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority constructed Whitcomb Court around the cemetery’s perimeter in 1958, as one of the public housing projects for families displaced by highway construction through Jackson Ward.
The four acres of St. Joseph’s Cemetery declined in use until 1971, when the diocese sold those grounds to the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority for use as a playground at Whitcomb Court. That year, the diocese contracted with the Joseph W. Bliley Funeral Home to remove “21 marked and about 50 unmarked graves” to Holy Cross and Mount Calvary Cemeteries, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
So the highway construction and housing projects worked as yet another episode in the erasure of Black burials in the city. The pain of the cemetery’s displacement was compounded by the Diocese of Richmond’s decision to close the historic St. Joseph’s parish in 1969 in a move toward integration.
Today the playground stands as another overlooked element in the landscape of Richmond’s cemeteries.
For more information, see:
Veronica A. Davis, Here I Lay My Burdens Down: A History of the Black Cemeteries of Richmond, Virginia (Richmond: Dietz Press, 2003)
Nessa Theresa Baskerville Johnson, A Special Pilgrimage: A History of Black Catholics in Richmond (Richmond: Diocese of Richmond, 1978)
“The Tombstone That Came Back,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, September 13, 1903