THE OLD WOMAN OF ST. MARY'S PARK

While doing my usual research on the Albany Rural Cemetery, I was looking up some things about the old Saint Mary's Cemetery (labeled on some maps as the Cathedral Cemetery) that occupied land off Washington Avenue near North Main Avenue.  Much of that land is now occupied by Albany High School (my alma mater - Class of 1992).  The graves were removed to St. Agnes Roman Catholic Cemetery in Menands (though it never surprises me when a few graves are left behind or misplaced.)  A small park located just behind the school is still known as St. Mary's Park. 

The article reprinted below caught my attention because I recognized the reporter's name from articles on Bouck White.  Reading further, I discovered the story of Mary Conroy.  The photo, however, is from an article a year earlier on the plans to convert the old cemetery to a park.  It shows the caretaker's cottage, a brick structure that was most likely a receiving vault, and a gravestone lying in the grass.  Around the same time, there were some ghost stories circulating in this same neighborhood.  Tales of a thin, shadowy figure haunting the old graveyard in the vicinity of the receiving vault and cottage.  While the stories of this black-clad wraith did attract the attention of the newspapers and police, the ghost was most likely Mary Conroy simply going about her business on chilly evenings.

-- Paula

CLEARING OF ST. MARY'S PARK BRINGS TEARS TO AGED WOMAN WHO INHABITED REGION Started living in small place 20 years ago, she says.  Mrs. Mary Conroy, 70, sees passing of cottage and lilacs.

by H. Eric Liljehom

They cut down the old lilac bush in St. Mary's Park the other day, and tears filmed the faded blue eyes of the shrunken old woman who lived 20 years in the former cemetery. 

Mrs. Mary Conroy she is, and now at weary 70 she does housework for bread and board at Brady Maternity Hospital in North Main Avenue.  Until a year ago her lonely home was that baroque, tumble-down little red and yellow cottage squatting on the edge of abandoned St. Mary's Cemetery in upper Washington Avenue.

Now almost every afternoon, the little old woman of the cemetery toddles slowly over from the hospital with her fox terrier, Queenie, to hold an hour or so of communion with happy days dead and memories entwined in the abundant vines that covered her beloved old home.

With her ancient high-crowned hat and ruffled, long faded coat, the little old woman looks as if she had just stepped out from a daguerreotype.  For many years she has been a mystery in the West End.  Few knew who lived in that odd home.

A reporter found her standing in the cottage doorway.  She was silently, wistfully watching the 70 men working under the city relief plan.  They were burning the weeds, chopping trees, leveling the ground to prepare a beautiful park.

"Hello, Mrs. Conroy," the reporter said.  "I hear they're going to tear down your old home."

"Oh yes, yes," the little old woman replied.  "But it had to happen.  Had to.  Everything goes."  My husband - God rest his soul in Heaven - went in 1918.  He was buried out there.  I like to come and look out at where he was buried."

"You lived here a long time?"

"Twenty years ago it was was when my husband and I came here," she said slowly.  "He was the cemetery caretaker.  When he died, Bishop Cusack - God rest his soul in Heaven - told me very kindly to stay on here forever.  Oh dear, dear!"  She pointed with a trembling hand.  "Look over there.  They've cut down the old lilac bush I planted years ago.  I asked them not to.  But I suppose it had to go.  Everything goes.  And those men out there - God bless them - need work."

She was silent.  She pointed to a cluster of tall maples swaying gray and stark against the winter sky.  The tears filmed her eyes.

"I planted those trees, too.  Watched them grow like children.  And I planted all those fine vines that used to cover the cottage.  Now they cling to it, dead.  Ah it was a beautiful spot years ago with flowers and trees and vines."

The chill made her tremble.  The reporter suggested going inside.

"Oh, it isn't nice enough," she protested.  But finally she yielded.

Inside, only one gloomy cluttered room left habitable.  Walls on the other rooms warped inward, full of cracks.  Ceilings sagged.  An ancient stove burned low.  Old tintypes and religious relics lay on the table.  And there was a pouchy old leather armchair - HIS chair, she said.  She sat in the chair and fondly patted its worn arms.

"It used to be so cozy here," she murmured.  "I was here until a year ago, alone.  It's too cold and tumble-down now.  And next spring they will tear it down.  I get my bread and board now at the hospital.  They are very nice to me. 

"I used to get along all right here.  The boys from LaSalle School - God bless them - used to come over.  They chopped wood for me.  They ran errands.  I told them stories.  They used to call me 'Mother.'  Fine upstanding and God-fearing young men they have grown to be.  Aye, aye."

Then suddenly she arose.  She called for her dog, given her eight years ago.

"I must be getting back," she said.  "No rest for the wicked.  God bless you."

"And so the little old woman of the cemetery plodded away with her faithful companion, Queenie, tagging at her heels."

from The Albany Evening Journal, January 5, 1932

A fragment of an old headstone showing the Queen of Heaven.  St. Agnes Cemetery is dotted with stones which were moved here from the Catholic section of the State Street Burying Grounds, St. Mary's Cemetery at Washington and North Main Avenues, and a smaller graveyard on what is now Sherman Street between Lexington and Robin Streets.  Headstones such as this one would've been a familiar site to Mary Conroy when her husband was caretaker of the then-active St. Mary's Cemetery.


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