Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Missing Nun

Mother Mary Camillus AKA Elizabeth McGarr 1842-1911

     I continue to study the lives of all the McGarrs who came to Auburn, New York in the 1800's, and as usually happens when enough attention to detail is paid, events and names collected over time take on new significance as it becomes clearer how all the pieces fit together.  Which of course is the point of researching friends and relatives of our ancestors in the first place. 

     Today I stumbled upon the story of Elizabeth McGarr, daughter of Daniel McGarr and Anastasia Lyons, and my second cousin 4 times removed.  I believe her father and my 3rd great-grandfather, who was also named Daniel McGarr, were cousins, their fathers being brothers.

     While reading through the McGarr notes compiled by Evelyn Twining of Auburn, New York back in 1979, I was reminded that Elizabeth, like her sisters Mary Ann and Bridget, belonged to the Order of the Sisters of Mercy.  Even more interesting, after several Google searches I found a book online containing a photograph of Elizabeth and some unknown, (to me), details of her life.  Elizabeth, known in religious life as Mother Mary Camillus, was head of a boarding school for girls in far away Rio Vista, California, nearly 3,000 miles from Auburn!  The book read in part--
It was Archbishop Patrick Riordon who invited Mercy Sisters Mother Mary Camillus McGarr to send three sisters to Rio Vista to operate the recently constructed St. Gertrude Academy.  The sisters arrived in Rio Vista in 1876 and started preparations for the first term.  Mother Camillus filled the position of mother superior until her death in 1911 and was buried in the convent cemetery.
     By 1880 the school had grown to sixty students from all over California and some from out of state.  It's thirty five acres sat atop a small hill surrounded by beautiful landscaping.  What a perfectly lovely story of my cousin's life's work.

     But... trying a few different search terms brought up this disturbing news article that appeared in the Daily Republic in March of 2010--
   When St. Gertrude's Academy for Girls was torn down, it left behind a mystery.  What happened to the bodies buried at the sister's cemetery? Gertrude and Joseph Brunning who started the academy were buried there...a sixteen year old named Jennie McLaughlin who came to live with the sisters when she was one was buried there in 1921; and the final resting place of Sister Mary Camillus McGarr, the founding sister of St. Gertrude's, is said to be located in the cemetery as well.
   But where is the cemetery?  Where are the bodies?  There are now houses where the cemetery used to be.  The mortuary has records of  them being buried at St. Gertrude's, but there is no record of them being exhumed.
     Unexpectedly, the uplifting story had taken a sinister turn.  The academy closed in 1930 and the sisters were sent to different posts. What happened then?  In 1932 the headstones were removed, though years later a resident found marble corner markers in his backyard, in a spot not shown on any cemetery map.  I would imagine the developers and their bulldozers soon arrived and building commenced.  

     It's quite sad that no one knows what became of the remains. Surely if they had been moved they would have been re-interred in a nearby Catholic cemetery.  And surely there would have been a record of that?  It's hard to believe they could still be there under the homes, unnoticed even as construction progressed, but then again perhaps not.  Out of curiosity I checked on the prevalence of basements in California.  Here in the northeast where I live we have basements due to the cold winters.  A home's footings need to be below the frost line which could be three or four feet down.  California's bay area where Rio Vista is located doesn't have that problem so there was no need to dig down very far at all.

      Unfortunately this disturbing tale doesn't have an ending.  I hope my cousin and the others rest in another Catholic cemetery and not under some bungalow, but who knows?  It was the 1930's and there was money to be made...


  1. Hi, I live down river from Rio Vista on the Carquinez Straits. Do you know what streets the academy was on? And no, basements are not typically built in California like those back east. We have a basement, but it is really that the house was built on a slight slope and there space under our house tall enough to walk under. The back of the house is two storeys and the front only one.

  2. Hi Lisa, St. Gertrude's was on California Street, behind St. Joseph's Church which faced South 4th St.