St. Thomas Cemetery, often referred to as “the Old Catholic Cemetery,” sits at the crest of Water Hill. The entrance is guarded by two marble angels, placed there after many decades of duty at the altar of St. Thomas Church. They have been described as “life-sized,” but how is that defined for angels? These corporeal representations are no longer completely intact, and vandals have daubed paint on the white stone.
Many of the headstones are moss-covered, and some inscriptions can no longer be discerned. Among those that can be read, many tell tragic stories of short life spans in harder times. A flock of carved lambs remember children who died in infancy. Yet as one works out the math for headstone after headstone, a surprising number require a three-digit calculation.
One such centenarian, Mary H. Dignan, was born in 1857 and died in 1959. A brother fought in the Civil War, yet she lived into the era of television and Sputnik. Their parents, whose shared headstone is nearby, were born in Britain. They arrived in Ann Arbor by way of Ontario around 1860, when Mary was three. The family lived on E. University at Willard St., where the East Quad is now. On her 100th birthday, Mary received a congratulatory phone call from President Eisenhower.
Her obituary in the Ann Arbor News stated that she was believed to have been Ann Arbor’s oldest resident. However, it appears that distinction belonged to Rocco Desderide, whose final resting place is just a few steps from Dignan’s. Born thirteen days before Dignan, he lived to be 104.
Desderide was born in Genoa, Italy, and arrived in the U.S. in 1882. He is remembered in Ann Arbor as the owner of Desderide’s grocery, in the brick building on Detroit St. that eventually became Zingerman’s Deli. He attributed his long life to “not having worked very hard.”
Another centenarian buried nearby is Louise M. Zachmann (1875-1978). She was born at 312 Detroit St. and lived most of her years there, until the house was destroyed in a fire. She’d worked as a cashier and bookkeeper at her German-born father’s meat market and later as a clerk at Deluxe Bakery. On turning 100, she received a letter from President and Mrs. Gerald Ford.
Catherine M. Pipp (1870-1973) was wife to architect Herman Pipp, who designed Nickels Arcade, the Barton Hills Country Club, and the Marchese/Whitker building on S. Main St., with its striking terra-cotta detail and copper canopy. The Ann Arbor News quoted Catherine Pipp’s formula for longevity as “living day to day so you can’t worry about the future too much,” and “not eating fried foods, but lots of bananas.”
Catherine Barnes (1869-1975), another centenarian interred at St. Thomas, attributed her own long life to eating very plain food and occasionally drinking wine.
Monsignor Vincent James Howard (1918-2018) was proud to have marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama. He also joined the March on Washington and heard King give his renowned “I Have a Dream” speech.
Other stories are remarkable too. The stone of Patrick Irwin (1839-1910) reads “Medal of Honor.” Congress recognized him for his bravery on September 1, 1864 at Jonesboro, Georgia. His citation reads “In a charge by the 14th Michigan Infantry against the entrenched enemy, Irwin was the first man over the line of works of the enemy, and demanded and received the surrender of Confederate Gen. Daniel Govan and his command.”
Sergeant John Frances Smith (1929-1951) died in a North Korean POW camp. His parents’ graves lie next to his. His father was a WWI veteran and outlived his son by fifteen years.
Baseball player Louis Joseph Schiappacasse (1881-1910), nicknamed “Shippy,” played two games for the Detroit Tigers in 1902. He spent seven more years in the minor leagues before dying of typhoid fever at age twenty-nine.
Harry Decatur “Railroad Jack” Cooper (1864-1933) was an Ann Arbor character who referred to himself as an “intellectual hobo.” He rode the rails while earning money by winning bets with his prodigal memory. He boasted that for five cents he could answer any question related to any date and if wrong he would pay the questioner $10. He claimed to know 10,000 historical facts related to dates.
Joe Rodriguez (1925-2003) served in the Marine Corps in WW II and was a member of the historic group photographed raising the American flag on Iwo Jima.
George J. Burke (1886-1950) served as a judge at the Nuremberg war crimes trials. His tribunal judged Nazis who operated in the Balkans. The tribunal considered whether the partisans were “lawful belligerents” entitled to the status of prisoners of war, and whether taking hostages and conducting reprisals against civilians was a lawful defense against guerrilla attacks.
Eddie Owens (1921-1996) was the Ann Arbor Police Department’s first black detective.
During Ann Arbor’s early days, women didn’t have the same opportunities for illustrious careers as men did, but they could make a difference in other ways. When Julia Steffey died in 1937, the Ann Arbor News commented that she “personified the type of neighborly, sympathetic Irish woman whose services, given willingly, were constantly in demand in years gone by as a practical nurse and as a ‘friend in need’ of hundreds of families in the city.”
After attending Ann Arbor High School, Laura K. Weber (1891-1943) graduated from the nursing program at the Peterson private hospital in Ann Arbor. She then served as a Red Cross nurse in WWI.
Evelyn Stack (1919-2002), owner of the Roundtable restaurant at 114 W. Liberty, was recognized as a world-class pie maker. She made three dozen or more each week and even more around holidays. On March 22, 1995 the City of Ann Arbor presented her with a proclamation acknowledging the day as Evelyn Stack Day.
The majestic trees of St. Thomas cemetery provide a fitting feeling of reverence for the many lives represented. It nestles up against the city’s Bluffs Nature Area, chosen by many mountain bikers for its hilly paths. Across Sunset Rd., children play at Hunt Park, mostly unaware of the cemetery and its stories.