Spirit of St. Joachim

The Friends of St. Joachim Cemetery aim to improve the church’s graveyard and promote the history of those buried there.

A community that cares: Volunteer Sean Brassil works on cleaning the graveyard behind St. Joachim Catholic Church, 1527 Church St., on Saturday, Sept. 28. JACK TOMCZUK / TIMES PHOTO

About 10 volunteers gathered Saturday morning to spruce up a cemetery belonging to a Frankford church that closed six years ago.

Their work, broken up only by the rumble of the “El” train from the nearby Church Station, included removing weeds and branches surrounding the graveyard behind St. Joachim Catholic Church, 1527 Church St.

It was the second clean-up held by the Friends of St. Joachim Cemetery, a recently organized group that aims to improve the cemetery and promote the history of those buried there.

“There’s a lot of history here that nobody really knows about,” said Joe Taylor, who is leading the effort with his wife, Maureen. “Everybody’s got a story.”

Like Alonzo Betancourt, a Cuban who settled in Frankford after being forced to flee his country following his role in an insurrection against the Spanish, who controlled the island. 

Maureen Taylor speaks Saturday, Sept. 28, about the Rev. Francis Fitzmaurice, a former St. Joachim pastor who is buried in the church’s cemetery. JACK TOMCZUK / TIMES PHOTO

He continued to be invested in Cuban affairs and was part of a delegation who met with President James K. Polk in 1848 to push for the United States to annex Cuba, according to research conducted by Taylor and former Frankford resident Bob Smiley.

“That effort was unsuccessful,” Maureen Taylor said.

The meeting with Polk was arranged with the help of then-Mississippi Sen. Jefferson Davis, who later became leader of the Confederacy during the Civil War.

After his death in 1857, Betancourt, along with the rest of his family, was buried in the sidewalk outside St. Joachim. They were moved to the cemetery, presumably after the old church burnt down in 1979.

During a break in the clean-up, the Taylors gave a brief historical presentation on three people buried at the cemetery. Beside Betancourt, they spoke about the Rev. John P. Byrne and the Rev. Francis Fitzmaurice, both former pastors at St. Joachim.

Volunteers clean up St. Joachim Cemetery on Saturday, Sept. 28. JACK TOMCZUK / TIMES PHOTO

St. Joachim, the first Catholic parish in Northeast Philadelphia, was closed by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 2013.

The convent has since been purchased by the Capuchin Franciscans for use as a friary, and they use the church as the Padre Pio Prayer Center for various events. 

Since about the time the church closed, Taylor and Keep the Faith in Frankford, a group that has fought to have the church reopened, have held Memorial Day ceremonies for veterans buried at the cemetery. 

Among those memorialized at the graveyard are Joseph Alexander Coyle, who died in France during World War I, and Andrew Krull, who died in the line of duty during World War II.

It was during the most recent ceremony in May 2019 that Joe Taylor realized the cemetery could use some help. Bushes were overgrown, fences were covered in weeds, park benches had deteriorated and some headstones had fallen down, he said.

Taylor approached Holy Innocents Parish in Juniata, which absorbed St. Joachim, about forming a group to clean up the cemetery. He said the parish has supported the effort.

Holy Innocents pays for the grass at the cemetery to be cut. The Friends of St. Joachim Cemetery is focusing on clearing weeds and branches.

“The primary goal right now is cleaning,” Maureen Taylor said. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s a start.” 

Sean Brassil, who moved to Frankford two months ago, said he heard about the initiative during a special Mass at the church celebrating the feast of St. Joachim. He spent Saturday clearing off a fence. 

Joe Taylor gives a presentation Saturday, Sept. 28, on the Rev. John Byrne, a former St. Joachim’s pastor who is buried in the church’s cemetery. JACK TOMCZUK / TIMES PHOTO

“I didn’t even know there was a graveyard here,” Brassil said.

Burial records indicate the graveyard has been in operation since 1848, though the church didn’t purchase it until 1861, Taylor said. There are only about 230 headstones, but the group’s research indicates that more than 2,300 people are buried there.

The Taylors hope that, eventually, the Friends of St. Joachim Cemetery will be able to raise enough money to replace the benches and repair the damaged memorials.

“It’s a nice place just to sit and reflect,” Maureen Taylor said of the cemetery.

The group’s next event will be held on All Souls Day, Nov. 2. There will be a history tour followed by a 4 p.m. Mass at St. Joachim Church. ••

A memorial at St. Joachim Cemetery honors Civil War veteran Charles Durney, who is buried there. JACK TOMCZUK / TIMES PHOTO