What to do tonight: Unearth Calvary Catholic Cemetery's history with the Squirrel Hill Historical Society


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As far as Chris Motto is concerned, a cemetery is a good place to keep something alive.

For 17 years, Ms. Motto has been family service manager for the Catholic Cemeteries Association of Pittsburgh, a role that involves her in the planning of people's memorials at Calvary Catholic Cemetery.

"We truly believe, as a group, that stones and memorialization are one of the most important parts of communicating a person's story to friends and family in the future," Ms. Motto said. "We deal with a lot of genealogy because we're one of the city's oldest Catholic cemeteries, second to St. Mary's in Lawrenceville. And we have hundreds and hundreds of requests monthly for genealogy.

"Unfortunately, the only thing that we can provide to most families is maybe a map and a location, and when they get there, some of these folks don't even have memorials or stones. And some that do, from the early 1900s, it's just a name and maybe a date. Sadly, a lot of those people couldn't afford to memorialize, and the only people who could were the wealthy.

"Now, people are customizing and doing things that tell a story of the person's life. And that's something that I think is so much more meaningful to future generations."

Ms. Motto will be sharing the story of telling stories tonight with the Squirrel Hill Historical Society at an event that is open to the public.

"We do this 11 times a year," said Mike Ehrmann, chairman of the society for the past 10 years. "On the second Tuesday of every month, except August, we hold a talk, free to the public, covering historic issues focused on Squirrel Hill and the general area."

Calvary Catholic Cemetery's 200-plus acres are along Hazelwood Avenue in the Greenfield and Hazelwood neighborhoods, but the cemetery is close enough -- and important enough -- for the residents of Squirrel Hill to need to know more about it.

"We've done a couple of things with neighboring areas. We've also done the Allegheny Cemetery in Lawrenceville," Mr. Ehrmann said. "We have had regular talks where we ask another historical society to come in and tell us about their neighborhood. And we have a fair number of folks who have relatives buried [at Calvary]. It has a Squirrel Hill connection in that way."

Mr. Ehrmann said historical societies are more than just groups that hang on to the past. They serve a vital role.

"They're important to a neighborhood because sometimes there are actual historic issues that need to be looked at, such as if historical resources are being challenged," he said. "But [they're also important] because a neighborhood is created by its history, and in celebrating the history, you are increasing the pride of the neighborhood. We're more of the second variety."

The Squirrel Hill Historical Society, which has about 100 members and a mailing list of some 500, was formed in 2000.

"Before that," he said, "there had never really been a comprehensive look at Squirrel Hill and how it started."

History also is important to Calvary Catholic Cemetery. Founded in 1886, it is the final resting place, as they say, of about 155,000 people, including celebrities, statesmen and common folk. Ms. Motto will be sharing some of those stories in her presentation tonight.

"We do a couple speaker events a year," she said. "We show pictures from the early 1900s and photos of some of the famous residents within the gates of Calvary. Some of the memorials and monuments also have stories.

"History is important, and there's a lot to learn from our cemetery. We've been a part of the community since 1886, which means we're older than most of the companies, businesses and people here."

There are people from all over the world buried in Calvary, and Ms. Motto suggests that just about everyone in Pittsburgh knows someone there. Former mayors Richard Caliguiri and Bob O'Connor are buried there, as are a number of legislators and congressmen. There's boxing great Billy Conn, Negro Leagues baseball player Bucky Williams and Harry Stuhldreher, one of Notre Dame's famed Four Horsemen.

And everyone remembers Frank Gorshin, who played the original Riddler on "Batman" in the 1960s. Ms. Motto worked with the Gorshin family in selecting his memorial.

"It's truly a testament to who he was," she said of the actor, who died in 2005. "The stone itself is simply a silhouette of him on stage because he portrayed so many characters. We wanted to leave it to everyone's imagination. People had their favorite characters that he played. He wasn't just the Riddler. He was so many things."

The cemetery association also uses the modern social media.

"One of the things we talk about is our veterans tribute album," Ms. Motto said. "We encourage all of our families that have a loved one who was or is a member of the armed forces to bring in a photo of their veteran -- and they don't have to be deceased -- and we will post their photo and upload it to our tribute album. So everyone in the world can see it. People can comment on them and share them.

"Especially for someone who has lost someone. For example, we've lost almost all of our World War II veterans. Now families can go on and share their stories."

The event begins at 7:30 p.m. at the Church of the Redeemer, 5700 Forbes Ave., in Squirrel Hill.

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This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: http://press.post-gazette.com/


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