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Historical mystery: Just how many people were buried at the old Coniston cemetery?

Local historian Jason Marcon has found 45 names of people whose final resting place could be remote plot of land that hasn't been used in more than 90 years, and he thinks there may be even more
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In 1926, the French Catholic parish in Coniston announced that it could no longer care for the community's small cemetery, located on a plot of land behind the Notre-Dame-de-la-Merci church.

The somewhat confusing history of the cemetery — and the fact that it has mostly been reclaimed by the wilderness — has made it challenging to know exactly many people were buried there between 1914 and 1926. 

Grave markers have vanished, records are unclear, loved ones have moved on.

Now, 22 years after a memorial was erected at the Coniston Cemetery honouring 115 people buried at the site, the Coniston Historical Group has returned to the hunt, this time, with technology on their side.

Jason Marcon, who for all intents and purposes is the Coniston Historical Society, has managed the group's operation since 1999. He has been able to trace the names of 45 additional people who may have been laid to rest on the hilltop property, but he's not stopping there. Marcon hopes to encourage those with ties to Coniston and who may have information about their relative's final resting place to come forward or confirm the burial of people he has found through public records.

Marcon wants to update the existing memorial plaque both to add individuals left off by the original effort, and to correct any spelling mistakes and update entries with new-found data. 

If you can help, Marcon wants to hear from you.

Coniston Cemetery, a brief history

The Coniston Cemetery operated from 1914 to 1926 under the care of Paroisse Notre-Dame-De-La-Merci, for the benefit of the town's Catholic community. In 1926, Marcon said the parish announced they could no longer care for the grounds. From that point on, the area, once organized with crosses and headstones, began to fall into disrepair.

Although Marcon said he can't find any official documentation stating that bodies were exhumed following the closure, he was able to locate a news article from 1993 where a longtime resident of Coniston claims this may have occurred some 60 years prior. 

"I know somebody came in to move them, but I don't remember who," a resident named Elisa Legault is quoted as saying. 

But, she added, this may not have been the case for all of the bodies buried on the hilltop. 

"Not everybody could afford (to pay someone to relocate a body). It was a lot of money in those days," she said in the 1993 article by the Sudbury Star. 

Marcon said it wasn't long after the Coniston Cemetery closed that St. John's Cemetery was opened in Garson, and this became the most common burial place for Conistonians, along with Ste. Anne Des Pins in downtown Sudbury. With the cemetery basically abandoned, Marcon said it devolved back into wilderness. 

Honouring the dead

The effort to preserve the memories of those interred there starts back in 1993 with Mike Solski, a former mayor of Coniston. 

In 1993, Solski was approached by a former resident named Eugenia Watts, who had returned to Coniston in search of her family's final resting place and found nothing but trees in the space she remembered. After asking around town for the location of those laid to rest, she was put in touch with Solski, who was chair of the historical society at the time.

By interviewing members of the community and searching through what Marcon said was "filing cabinets" worth of birth, death and baptismal records, the original historical society was able to identify 115 individuals who were buried at the Coniston Cemetery.
 
Around 70 per cent of these individuals were under the age of eight said Marcon, which could be attributed to the quality of medicine at the time, or the Spanish Flu epidemic that ravaged the world from 1918 to 1920. 

To account for the high number of children buried there, Marcon also said it was quite likely that adults would have been buried in family plots located elsewhere, as most residents were recent immigrants to the community, if not to Canada. 

On Oct. 19, 1997, the Coniston Historial Society hosted a ceremony to dedicate the memorial plaque with help from the Coniston Improvement Group, who assisted in preparing the space for the new monument. From that point on, Nickel Centre took over care of the property followed by the City of Greater Sudbury upon amalgamation.

In 1999, Marcon took over care of the historical group and, to a degree, the cemetery itself, trimming trees and providing maintenance work when needed, in addition to the city's contribution. This wasn't an elected position he said, but one that he fell into naturally, seeing as no one was preserving Coniston's history following Solski's death.

"Nobody else was really doing it, so I took it upon myself," he said. "I've just run with it ever since."

A love of local history

Marcon credits his grandparents for his interest in Coniston's history, who each had a copy of Mike Solski's book "The Coniston Story" in their homes. Even his father would tell him stories about the graveyard that lay on the hilltop above where his childhood home was nestled away, Marcon said.

“Coniston history has been important to me ever since — I don't want to say ever since I could read, but ever since I had 'The Coniston Story' Mike Solski published in my hands for the first time,” he said.

Although Marcon said he does manage the majority of the group's day-to-day activities, he gets a considerable amount of volunteer support from his sister, Shannon Marcon Slater. While this is the extent of the group's formal management, Marcon said he is always able to find help from the community when he needs it.

This work he said, includes helping individuals find information on their relative's life, death, and lineage, or at times, the age of a families 'new' home. For these forms of inquiry, Marcon said the public library has begun recommending him as a resource.

Marcon said that by providing this service and maintaining the group's Facebook page, he hopes to create an enjoyable experience for former residents of Coniston and inspiration for those considering joining the community.

"The new generation that moves into Coniston can say... 'wow, these are the great things they did in the past and I hope to be a part of that going forward'," said Marcon.

When asked what inspired him to re-visit the Coniston Cemetery memorial project, Marcon said it has always been something that’s fascinated him. 

“This being the digital age now, I am able to have access to all that information a lot more readily,” he said. “Once I found one, it was like the dam burst, I had to find more - I couldn't stop from there.”

Marcon said he expects to find only two more names in his search through death records of 1927, which he has chosen to include despite the fact the church closed in 1926. Taking into consideration that members of the community may have disregarded the church’s decision to discontinue service, Marcon said it was better to be safe than sorry.

“Let's make sure we have it correct so we don't have to revisit this in five years,” he said with a laugh.

Marcon said the process has been going well so far and the community response has been positive, which is all he hoped for. Seeing as there is no other monument to the past aside from the community's war memorials, Marcon said this is a very important piece of the town's history. 

"You have to remember those who came before you, even if they're not your family ... they're still a part of your community," he said. "You want to treasure and honour them."

"I hope it inspires other groups, other communities, because really it's a part of your history and it's also people."

Visit the Coniston Historical Group Facebook page. If you are looking for information on the community, or you can contribute to Marcon's effort to update the memorial plaque at the old cemetery, you can also message him through the Facebook page

Check back with Sudbury.com in the following weeks to see the full list of names. 




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