Profile: Bennett’s Lane Roman Catholic Cemetery

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The Bennett’s Lane Cemetery is the oldest Roman Catholic graveyard in Harbour Grace.

The oldest known gravestone can be traced to 1802, though there were burials here in the late eighteenth century.

Most notably, Father Patrick Phelan is buried at Bennett’s Lane Cemetery, Harbour Grace. Phelan, a Franciscan or Friar Minor, headed the Harbour Grace mission under Bishop James O’Donel (O’Donnell), travelling around Conception Bay to deliver mass to its Catholics. Although the date of his arrival is unknown, Phelan was in Harbour Grace by 1794, making two visitations to his parish annually. In September 1799, Phelan drowned off Grates Cove, his boat capsizing along with its crew. Phelan’s body was recovered and interned at the only Catholic graveyard in Harbour Grace. Rev. Thomas Ewer (Yore), who oversaw the construction of Harbour Grace’s first church – a wooden structure with a 100-foot steeple – was also said to be buried at Bennett’s Lane Cemetery in 1833. By 1856, the graveyard was no longer used.

On January 10, 2006, the Bennett’s Lane Roman Catholic Cemetery was designated a Municipal Heritage Site by the Town of Harbour Grace.

With headstones almost completely eroded by time and weather, this ancient burial ground still commands respect and an air of reverence. Huge markers reveal weathered, elaborate homages to those interred in the cemetery grounds, but today they stand precariously among the uneven ground. The size of the headstones and their shapes and designs reveal the importance placed on this cemetery by the Roman Catholic community of nineteenth century.

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In recent years, this graveyard has garnered interest, due to mysterious skull-and-crossbones iconography on a tom

bstone. In 2013 the Knights of Columbus Dalton Council No. 1448 rediscovered this grave during a cleanup of the site. Though there are many theories about its origins, nothing has been proven conclusively. In all likelihood, the grave holds a young child, possibly a cholera victim. The lamb iconography probably symbolizes a young victim, the skull-and-crossbones signifying some form of infectious hazard.

The most popular, contentious theory is that the gravesite is a “pirate’s grave,” the final resting place of nineteenth-century pirate John Keating, of Harbour Grace. Local historian Jack Fitzgerald popularized this story his books Treasure Island Revisited (2005) and Remarkable Stories of Newfoundland (2010). A Telegram article details Fitzgerald’s theory:

The identity of the remains in a grave at Harbour Grace displaying the pirate’s skull and crossbones might never be known, but there is a possibility that it’s the resting place of Capt. John Keating.

He is the most internationally famous of all Newfoundland pirates.

Keating was born in Harbour Grace in 1808 and died at St. John’s in 1882.

While two sons of Harbour Grace are mentioned in the many books on “The Lost Treasure of Lima” — also known as “The Cocos Island Treasure” — Keating is the one who found the treasure in 1841 and again in 1845.

The treasure was originally pirated in 1821 by Capt. William Thompson from the port of Callao, Peru, and buried on Cocos Island.

The second person was Capt. Nick Fitzgerald from Riverhead, Harbour Grace.

He was given the map by Keating (about 25 years later), and after Keating’s death, made a deal with adventurer Herve Montmorency to give him the map in return for five per cent of the treasure.

At today’s value, the treasure is estimated to be worth $350 million.

Of the two Harbour Grace natives, the one most likely to have a grave marked with the sign of a pirate is Keating.

After finding the treasure and returning to St. John’s — twice — with parts of the hidden Lima treasure, Keating bragged about his success so much that towns-people nick-named him “Keating of the Cocos.”

When he first met Fitzgerald, he boasted, “I am known in St. John’s as Keating of the Cocos.”

In fact, Rupert Furneaux, author of “The Great Treasure Hunt,” claimed, “From John Keating has descended the fundamental Cocos Legend which is accepted by all modern Treasure Hunters.”

It was Keating’s successful expedition in 1841 that set off a treasure hunt craze that continues to this day. Nobody goes in search of that treasure without researching Keating.

In 2012, German filmmaker Dr. Ina Knobloch — with whom I worked on earlier documentaries on this treasure — teamed up with a British industrialist on a treasure-hunting expedition.  

The Montmorency Expedition failed and Fitzgerald died in 1905.

I located Fitzgerald’s grave, but had no success in making an absolute finding of Keating’s grave.

Up till now I believed that he was buried with his first wife and child in the family grave at Belvedere in St. John’s. Yet, his name is not on the tombstone, so I cannot be certain he is buried there.

Montmorency published a book on his expedition. It created a sensation here due to the Newfoundland connections.

The Lima treasure was originally stolen by British-born Capt. William Thompson and, after burying it on Cocos Island, he returned several times to retrieve portions of it.

While trying to evade authorities, he crossed over Mexico and ended up in Metanzas, Cuba, where he met Keating. Thompson jumped at the opportunity to join Keating as a crewman on his return to Newfoundland.

In St. John’s, Thompson boarded with Keating’s mother two doors east of Prescott Street. Keating and the pirate soon became friends.

They turned to Capt. Billy Boig, whose residence was on George Street, to plan a major expedition to retrieve all the treasure. This expedition ran into problems, Thompson died and Boig was murdered. Keating found the treasure, did not tell the crew, and took as much as he could carry back to Newfoundland.

Keating displayed during his lifetime the kind of ego that would prompt him to immortalize his connection to one of the world’s greatest pirate stories with a skull and crossbones marking his grave.

After Fitzgerald’s article and the cleanup, interest in the graveyard spiked for locals and tourists alike.

From 1993-95, a group of students recorded the 42 graves for posterity. The listing can be viewed here. Alternatively, Newfoundland Grand Banks has an active database of the Bennett’s Lane Cemetery records.

— Republished from hrgrace.ca.

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