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    Categories: Local News

Secrets in the ground

Volunteer John Matthews is heading up the Anglican Church of the Good Shepherd's efforts to restore the Poplar Lake Cemetery. Matthews

In an isolated field on the southern edge of the Edmonton Garrison, among prairie grasses and poplar trees stands a lone monument to a family long since passed.

Standing about seven feet tall, the granite monument has stood through harsh Alberta winters and short summers for nearly a century.

The smooth rose-coloured pillar flares outwards at the top, with a ring of permanently etched ivy and memorials to three members of the Fielders family.

After decades of neglect and ill-fated maintenance efforts, the Fielders’ memorial is the only constant in the small Poplar Lake cemetery. Situated on the corner of 82 Street and 195 Avenue, the site is nearing the end of a three-year restoration project that will see it open to new burials for the first time in 80 years.

The pillar on the Fielders’ memorial is divided into four panels — three panels mark the lives of a mother, father and son who lived just two quarter-sections south of the old cemetery, while the fourth was left blank.

John Fielders, the father died at 52 in June 1911 six months after his son John McDonald Fielders who died at 22 in January 1911.

Elizabeth Fielders survived until 1918, but having lost her son and husband and with another son fighting in France the last years of her life were likely very difficult and her memorial reads that way; “Safely anchored in the harbour of eternal rest.”

The fourth spot was likely reserved though never taken by the other son, who survived the war, but died within months of returning home.

The Anglican Church of the Good Shepherd has been working on the cemetery since 2006, slowly trying to restore it and trace the history of the people who were buried there.

John Matthews, a member of the church, said when he was asked to help out he saw only one workable solution.

“It has been a maintenance problem for the diocese for a very long time,” he said. “I concluded the only way we could do a proper job on it, on a long term basis, was to put it back into operation as a cemetery.”

The first burial at the cemetery took place in 1898 and at the time there was also a log cabin church, the Christ Church of Poplar Lake.

The church hobbled along for 20 years before closing, re-opening and then closing permanently in 1926. Around 1941 it burned to the ground.

Small community

As part of the restoration project, volunteers brought in a ground penetrating radar system that discovered 18 probable graves.

Poplar Lake was once a stop on a rail line between Edmonton and St. Albert. It had a school a short distance from the church and a handful of families had homesteads nearby.

In researching the lives, deaths and burials, Matthews said he has formed an idea of what Poplar Lake looked like.

“Gradually a picture starts to form. I can really start to form a picture of the community around here.”

He said turn of the century Canada saw many communities spring up on the vast open land, but not all survived.

“Every railway stop there was a potential to set up a mission and sometimes they remained and the community grew and others didn’t.”

The radar survey found 16 graves in an east-west alignment in line with Christian tradition and two oriented north-south.

It also discovered that under the Fielders’ memorial, the cemetery’s one immovable object, there are no graves at all.

Matthews said he believes it may have been put up well after the father and son died and was meant to serve as a memorial for the entire family.

He believes in addition to the large memorial there would have been more simple headstones for each member of the family, but nothing can be said for certain.

“I would think they are buried here, somewhere.”

Mysteries abound

After identifying the probable graves, each one was marked with a pair of black triangles marking the head and foot.

The markers are numbered from one to 18 and Matthews doubts he will ever be able to say precisely who is buried where.

He has a rough sketch the Royal Canadian Air Force drew during some previous attempt to restore the cemetery, but it has no scale and doesn’t come close to filling the gaps.

In addition to the Fielders’ memorial only two other headstones have been left intact, though out of place.

One is for Stella May Stoutenburg and her infant son Howard Carson Latimer, who died just two days before his mother.

The other is for Rose Eleanor Swan, remembered as the beloved wife of Rev. Richard Michael Swan who was in charge of Christ Church and several others when his wife died.

Matthew’s research indicates Stoutenburg, whose married name was Latimer, may not even be buried at Poplar Lake, but in Ontario.

He is also desperate for more information about Swan because the reverend was a key figure in keeping the church going.

The headstones are out of place because at some point during a previous restoration effort, they were removed so the overgrowth could be cut back, but were not returned to their rightful place.

“I don’t know if they failed to mark where they took them from or if it just got left,” said Matthews

He said the cemetery has been besieged by good intentions over the years.

“One of the reasons that we had this mess was that people were trying to fix the mess, but it never quite got followed through.”

Either during the move or at some other point in the 80 years they have been in the ground several other headstones were damaged.

One reads simply “Latimer” with no first name or any dates. The RCAF map Matthews found indicates there were several Latimers, but is scant on details.

“As it stands now I have three people with just Latimer and no name or date and I would like to clear that up.”

One headstone is even more cryptic with just an age below a jagged crack where more details once where.

“Aged 38 or 39 years. This has been an anomaly for a very long time to me. In all the surveys they have done with the dioceses and the genealogical society, we have never given a name to that one.”

Having exhausted all the resources he can think of, Matthews is now turning to the public, hoping descendants, amateur historians or genealogy buffs might be able to give names to the remaining graves.

Starting anew

He expects to hear soon that the cemetery has been given provincial approval to reopen and can start new burials.

The two-acre plot has a lot of open space. Matthews said Poplar Lake is going to maintain its character even as it accepts new burials.

“It will come with what you would expect from a rural cemetery. It is not your beautifully manicured lot that you see in the city like a golf course or something.”

The original 18 burials will be separated from the new plots and those that have been identified will have new headstones marking their place.

Matthews believes over the long term more graves might be identified and more of the answers revealed, but most importantly the cemetery will be maintained.

“I think we are on to something that is going to keep going.”

More information on the restoration can be found at www.goodshepanglican.org.

St. Albert Gazette: The St. Albert Gazette has been the source for news and community information in St. Albert and area since 1961. Today the twice-weekly full-colour tabloid delivers award-winning journalism in print, online and on mobile.