WILLOW BUNCH CATHOLIC CEMETERY IN TOWN
(On Avenue “D” in WILLOW BUNCH, SK.)
(1906 thru 1918/19 & one in 2013)
One of the more historically interesting stories of cemeteries in this area, is that of this SAINT IGNACE DES SAULES “interim” Catholic Cemetery. Though situated within the Town of Willow Bunch, on Lots 10, 11, & 12, Block 01, Plan AF 1162, with the façade/entrance on Avenue D, the site is no longer used for burials. All the same, it still belongs to the parish of St. Ignace des Saules and the parishioners dutifully see to its maintenance.
It was originally understood that this cemetery occupied the total of all three lots, being 198 feet in length (north to south) by 150 feet in width (east to west). Yet, the writer of the greater part of this preface, Mrs. Pauline (Blais) Foley who made a detailed study of the cemetery in 1972, with the help of then parish priest Reverend Adrien Chabot, indicated in her report that the dimensions were 115 feet in length (north to south) by 160 feet in width (east to west).
In fact, the size of the cemetery at present is 138 feet in length (north to south) by 168 feet in width (east to west) and, despite the many different figures relating to the cemetery, the reader may rest assured that the latter measurements are correct. The variance in the present size of the cemetery is the result of the parish having sold the most southerly 60 feet of all three lots around 1956-57 (amidst considerable controversy), to form a residential lot whereupon a private house was built. The intent of the sale was to raise funds for construction of the present church, built in 1958-59. Though a few bodies were disinterred prior to the sale, due to the unavailability of clear records to show exactly where each person was buried in the cemetery, who can say with any degree of certainty that no corpse was left buried in the area sold off, or for that matter, in the most westerly area boldly infringed upon by a neighbor, with impunity, in the early 1980s!
Today (2020), this St. Ignace Cemetery is surrounded by a unique “chain” fence, welded to evenly spaced silver painted metal posts on the north, south, and east sides, and by a five foot rust colored board fence along the west end of the lot. On the east side façade, one may unlatch a special section of the chain fence to provide a spacious entrance. Private dwellings border the site on two sides, which accounts for the tall (intrusive) fence on the west end. The whole area is level ground, only altered by grave mounds or indentations, and the remaining tombstones.
Community progress through the years is immediately noted by the fact that when one enters the graveyard, all but two tombstones face the west! This is a good indication that when the site was chosen out of virgin prairie in 1906, the façade/entrance was probably on the west side, or at the very least at the southwest corner of the cemetery facing the Church. Furthermore, a sturdy 12 foot high black wooden cross, which disappeared long ago, once stood about 72 feet from the present entrance, a little off center and to the south. It also becomes quite obvious that the reason a full 30 feet of burial sites at the east end were never used, is due to the fact that this graveyard was abandoned without delay during the 1918 Spanish Influenza.
This cemetery is but a portion of an 80 acre piece of land donated to the Roman Catholic Parish by Jean Louis Légaré in January, 1899. Standing anywhere on the site, one may view the unique appearance of the Willow Bunch Valley, narrow, hardly a mile wide, but extremely picturesque and surprisingly long. It is evidently a river bed which dried up many years ago.
All told there were 212 interments which took place at this site, but today only 39 site markers remain; none other can be found. Of the markers still standing, 37 have 40 readable names on them and two are now without an inscription! Of the Métis, Indian, French Canadian, English, German, and Hungarian people who were buried here, 45 were males, 48 females, 28 children, 87 infants, and four unknown.
One can certainly assume that most burials were of a very modest nature, quite common in that era due to the harsh conditions of pioneer life. Priests usually conducted the funerals simply with only family and friends present, as undertakers and their facilities were very rare indeed. As can be expected most markers were rather plain, many made of wood, iron, or cement, and only a few of marble. Unfortunately, most of the wooden ones have disintegrated with the ravages of time, and due to the bad habit of burning the graveyard clean. The tallest and most impressive monument is that of the co-founder of Willow Bunch, Jean Louis Légaré (1839-1918). It is the only headstone that has artificial flower decorations which are draped near the top of the stone.
Though this a Roman Catholic cemetery, it is a well known fact that Métis, Indians and Whites were buried here without discrimination of race or creed, and thus it is believed there were a few Protestants interred here as well.
The first burial at this site was that of Louison “Louis” Brière, at age 60, January 22, 1906 (the same year the old church was built). With one exception, the two last burials here were for: Joseph Albert Bonneau on July 9, 1919 (infant son of Jean Pascal & Estelle “Lavallée” Bonneau) and Louis Philippe Paquin on November 1, 1919.
All in all, this cemetery (for all intents and purposes) was abandoned in 1918, and there is substantial evidence to indicate it was abandoned for hygienic reasons, due specifically to the Spanish Flu epidemic which claimed many lives. It was a year of high infant mortality, directly attributable to the flu. Moreover, records show a possibility of three sets of twins buried here, and that there were three times more deaths during the winter months, then in the summer months. This discrepancy can be partly attributed to a lack of nutritious food, medical care, and cold weather, but it was also due to diseases such as diphtheria, whooping cough, typhoid fever, and other such illnesses, all of which when not treated with proper medical care could be fatal.
Ever since the Spanish influenza sounded the death knoll for this cemetery, all burials have taken place in the area’s original Catholic Cemetery, located directly south of what was “Bonneauville” (the forerunner of Willow Bunch), one and a half miles east of town.
It is felt a great debt of gratitude is due to the early French Canadians, English, Métis, and all other Pioneers who first settled in the Willow Bunch area. Now that civilization has replaced barbarism, that abundance has followed misery, we sometimes forget the hardships endured by our ancestors, and that becomes very evident when one has the opportunity to survey and study the past history of a cemetery. We may well offer our thanks to those who opened the way for us, and who gave up so much in order that we may have a better life.
Those people listed in the Master File with “Yes” by the notation “Site Marker:”, have a headstone/marker and their burial spot was located. All other people have no known headstone/marker and their burial spot was not found.
In fact, there is no cemetery map available to indicate which lots the people without a headstone are buried in, only mounds and indentations on the earth’s surface. Also, there is no doubt a possibility of error as to which St. Ignace des Saules cemetery some people are buried in, as both sites were in use during the years 1906-1918/19 and the church records are somewhat vague in this respect. Therefore, the total number of persons buried here remains as per the previous research done in 1972, by Rev. Adrien Chabot and Mrs. Pauline Foley, except for the addition of one burial on August 23, 2013, that of a young man named Jean-Louis Légaré, who’s ashes were interred by his renown namesake ancestor’s monument.
All headstones in the cemetery were checked in person on November 29, 1997, by Gilles A. Bonneau. Afterward, Mr. Bonneau and his brother, Janvier C. Bonneau, painstakingly typed in all the particulars for each entry, with Gilles doing the final editing. All names and dates were further checked for accuracy against the St. Ignace des Saules cemetery registers, by Gilles A. Bonneau and Gabrielle Granger on January 9, 1998, time when Rev. Roger Ducharme graciously made all the cemetery records available.
The books for this cemetery are kept in St Ignace des Saules Catholic Church in Willow Bunch, Sk. Phone #306 473 2214. They’re also accessible in the Willow Bunch Museum and on the Internet at www.willowbunch.ca . For cemetery plots, please contact Claude Dionne at #306 473 2214 in Willow Bunch, or Emile Giraudier at #306 473 2765 on his farm.
Number of sites without headstone/markings 170
Upright plank marker (site of Cordélie “Forest” Therrien) 1
Wrought-iron child’s crib (no name) 1
Number of readable names listed on 37 tombstones/markers 40
A large bronze plaque, upon which is inscribed the name of every person said to be buried in this cemetery, was erected on site July 25, 2005, courtesy of the Willow Bunch Métis Local 17. The plaque was officially dedicated to the memory of those deceased, and blessed by Rev. Ron Andree on Sunday July 31, 2005.