Holy Cross Cemetery
Holy Cross Cemetery, located on South Park and South Streets in Halifax, Nova Scotia, is an important religious and cultural space for thousands of Haligonians that claim Irish ancestry. Constructed in 1843 under the direction of the County Waterford native Archbishop William Walsh (1804-1858), the burial ground was built both to serve a pressing sanitisation necessity, and also to signify the great progress that the Irish Catholics had made within Halifax society.
As a Roman Catholic cemetery, individuals of various ethnicities (English, Scottish, Mi’Kmaq, African, Italian, and Chilean) are buried within the gates of Holy Cross, but the overwhelming majority of internments were people of Hibernian descent. Moreover, the graveyard is the final resting place for the immigrant generation of Irish-Halifax. Although the 2500 grave markers currently visible represent only a fraction of the 24,000 burials within the cemetery, the markers with engravings which read “Waterford, Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary,” symbolize the fascinating narrative of those Irish men and women that immigrated to Nova Scotia (much via Newfoundland) in the nineteenth century. The history of the individuals and families buried in the graveyard tell a collective story of migration, religion, kinship and settlement.
With the opening of the Roman Catholic Mount Olivet Cemetery in 1896 and Gate of Heaven Cemetery (Lower Sackville) in 1938, Holy Cross no longer served as the primary burial ground for Halifax Catholics. Although interments in the twentieth-century were commonplace, by 2005 the site had become overgrown and dilapidated. In 2006 Dr. Cyril Byrne, professor emeritus of Irish Studies at Saint Mary’s University, approached Dr. Brian O’Brien, a long time benefactor of the Chair of Irish Studies, and asked him to seek help from the Halifax-Irish community to restore the cemetery.
In 2006, the Holy Cross Cemetery Trust was established to address the substantial restoration of the burial ground and to devise a plan for physical and financial sustainability. With a team of dedicated volunteers (meeting faithfully on Saturday mornings), the Cemetery Trust refurbished over 1800 deteriorated grave stones, renovated Our Lady of Sorrows Chapel, improved fencing and security, completed a genealogical database and created an informative walking tour of the cemetery and chapel.
Watch Dr Brian O'Brien speak about the Holy Cross Project
The accomplishments of the Holy Cross Cemetery Trust lead directly to the formation of the Holy Cross Historical Trust in 2012. The mandate of the Historical Trust is to conduct historical research into the Halifax Irish community across the social science disciplines. In 2013, the Gorsebrook Research Institute at Saint Mary’s University partnered with the Holy Cross Historical Trust and the Canadian Catholic Historical Association on a partnership development grant, which was awarded by the Social Science & Humanities Research Council of Canada.
The partnership between Saint Mary’s University and the Irish Community in Halifax has led to ongoing research, and a commitment to ensuring that the narrative of the Halifax-Irish is accessible to the public. Through an intensive volunteer commitment, a searchable burial database is now available. (Click to search the Holy Cross Burial Database)