Church finds more than 100 unmarked graves during remodel
INDEPENDENCE, Wis. (WKBT) — The Saint’s Peter and Paul Church has plenty of history. It has been standing since 1895 and some of the headstones surrounding the church date back even further.
The church has been updated since opening, but the church still wasn’t handicap accessible, which is why some parishioners stopped going to the church when they got older.
When the church committed to making the building handicap accessible, some of the elder members of the church said, ‘Wait a minute, you better look careful before digging.’
“We started looking at an elevator addition on the north side. Well we had a couple seniors that came forward and said, ‘Guys, before you get going, I remember that there used to be some gravestones or grave markers on that north side,'” Bill Baxa, chairman of the Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church restoration committee, said.
A construction crew found 124 unmarked grave shafts.
“There were a couple of disheveled markers from the 1880s, 1890s and 1900s, all in Polish, most of the shafts were very small, infant sized,” Baxa said.
The graves were originally covered back up before the church decided there was no other place to put the elevator. In early September some of the bodies were exhumed.
“They found two large areas on the north side where there were no graves, so we’re just moving these individuals from where they’re located about 50 feet away,” Baxa said.
Before being reburied, the Wisconsin Historical Society will be taking the remains to Milwaukee for DNA testing to determine the gender, approximate age and possible cause of death.
“Next year we will have the graves returned,” Baxa said. “Then that whole area will be blessed and it will be a sacred area and another cemetery for our church.”
“It is something that was a little bit surprising as far as something that we would have to take care of, but we feel that it’s the church’s responsibility,” Baxa said.
Baxa said no one has been able to find out why the graves were covered up or why they were buried on the north side of the church when there are graves above ground, from the same time period, on the south side of the building. They did find a picture of the church from the early 1900s, however, confirming the gravestones were above ground at one point.
The church has been closed since late June for a major interior remodel. The church will reopen Nov. 28, but the elevator will not be completed until February.