The new graveyard grounds crew

St. Francis deSales cemetery has a new grounds crew. This summer, St. Paul’s parish is using a local herd of sheep to maintain the grass in its historic cemetery in French Woods, NY, a community about five miles north of Long Eddy.

Following an ancient European tradition, sheep are an ideal way to keep grass and briars under control in graveyards. The idea has also caught on among private citizens, as more property-owners switch to sheep and goats for lawn maintenance. It is all part of a developing “green” initiative that saves on equipment and gasoline costs.

St. Paul’s is part of a growing number of churches and cities turning to animal lawn mowers. The city of Ithaca, NY, began using sheep in the Ithaca City Cemetery last summer. And according to The Washington Post, the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, DC has turned to a herd of goats to clear poison ivy and weeds. Even Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport has introduced goats to keep land clear. While some people disparage the idea as “disrespectful” and worry that the animals may topple gravestones or munch on gravesite flowers, it is hard to find a better machine that can trim the uneven and hilly grounds of a cemetery.

My parents and sister, as well as many of my ancestors, are buried in the deSales graveyard, and I can only imagine that most of them would appreciate and welcome these roaming ruminant weed-whackers. Many of the early settlers of French Woods (first known as “The French Settlement”) were farmers themselves. The settlement comprised French and German immigrants, primarily from the Alsace-Lorraine section of France and the neighboring region of Germany, who came to America in the 1840s.

St. Francis deSales Church was the first Catholic church built in Delaware County in 1852. (Incidentally, the church was named for the French saint who is known as the patron saint of writers and journalists.) My great-grandfather, Antoine Dirig, was among settlers who helped to build it. The first priest was Father George Roesch, who walked a distance of 17 miles from St. Mary’s in Obernburg to say mass each Sunday at 11 a.m. in French Woods. The community, however, became divided following the 1870 eruption of the Franco-Prussian War in Europe. Eventually the schism became too much for Father Roesch, who resigned. In 1888, the church was reassigned from the Archdiocese of New York to the Diocese of Albany, of which St. Paul’s in Hancock is a part. In 1912, a new church was built next to the original.

The deSales church itself was closed in 1953, and finally in 1993 the structure was razed, leaving only the cemetery and some fragments of the foundation.

 The cemetery displays the names of the original settlers of French Woods including Bouchoux, Rotzler, Dirig, Nearing, Meyer, Shea, Proskine, Bonnefond, Cumineaux… As a child, I was always shown the graves of the three siblings of my grandfather, who had all died of scarlet fever during one week in June of 1869. The graves of Claudine Josephine, age 8; Lucy Elizabeth, age 3; and Lawrence Antone, age 1 are all marked on a single stone. Their graves were held up as evidence to the hardship and sorrow of our earliest settlers. I can remember my childhood sense of curiosity and fear of these powerful emotions.

The deSales cemetery continues to be in use today. And with the help from farmer Tom Shea and his herd of sheep, it will remain a tribute to the history of French Woods.

 

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