The Little Cemetery That Moved

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The journey of 43 Regis Jesuits and one Irish boy


It was a bright May afternoon in 1900 when Jack McDonnell walked out of his class in Main Hall into the sunshine and headed north across the College of the Sacred Heart campus.

Jack, 16, a popular boy with a lyric Irish accent, was a third-year student in the high school that, in those days, was called the Academic Department of Sacred Heart College. He'd just returned to the Northwest Denver Campus after a visit to his hometown in Ireland where his father lived and where his mother had recently died.

No one knows where Jack was headed that afternoon. Wherever it was, he didn’t make it. Just north of Main Hall, Jack collapsed.  

Distraught classmates rushed to his side and Rev. Modestus Izaguirre, S.J., who was nearby, knelt beside Jack, trying to revive him, but soon realized all he could do was offer absolution. According to the College Diary — a daily log officially called Diarrium Collegii Denveriani a sacratissmo corde, Jack, lying prone in the dirt “died between the College [Main Hall] and the Playhall [gym] at 3:20 p.m. The cause was a violent hemorrhage from the lungs. In five minutes it was all over.”  

The school’s physician, Dr. James Devlin, arrived, pronounced Jack dead, and said even if he had gotten there earlier, there was “simply nothing” he could have done to save the boy. After Jack’s death, the Diary noted that he had “weak lungs,” and had been sick a month before his death.  

So, two days later, on May 12, 1900, John J. “Jack” McDonnell became the first, and only, student to be buried in Regis’ cemetery. 

When the four-story building called Main Hall was built in 1887, it housed classrooms, and was home to the boys and young men — "perfect gentlemen" as the 1900 College catalogue stipulated — who came to study, as well as the Jesuit priests and brothers who taught there.

Of course, the men who devoted their lives to educating young men would eventually die. And so, Rev. Dominic Pantanella, S.J., one of the college's founders, created a cemetery on campus. Photographs and maps from the turn of the last century show that the little cemetery, set off by a low fence, sat beneath a row of then-young trees east of where St. Peter Claver, S.J., Hall stands now.

Regis' Little Cemetery of the Jesuits, as it was known, eventually was the final resting place for 43 priests, lay teachers and brothers — and one student, Jack McDonnell.

Jack had come to Sacred Heart in 1898, and some speculated that his family might have hoped Denver's dry climate would benefit his health. In 1900, as the college catalogue indicates, most Sacred Heart students were from Colorado, but a handful came from as far away as Iowa, Michigan, even Canada. No one, though, had traveled as far as Jack to master the liberal arts on the "beautiful knoll overlooking the Clear Creek Valley."

Over the years, the story has been repeated that Jack's father couldn't afford to have his son's body shipped home to Ireland. But that seems unlikely, given that Jack had just traveled back to County Mayo for a visit. And, according to the 1901 Irish census, his father, Michael McDonnell, was a merchant and landowner. His uncle, meanwhile, was a wealthy senator from Dublin. Not to mention the fact that Jack's family was able to pay Sacred Heart's $110 cost per term — the equivalent of about $3,500 today.

The real reason Jack's body stayed in Denver might have had more to do with the nature of his death — possibly caused by tuberculosis, known then as consumption — and fears about disease transmission if the body were transported across the ocean.

Whatever the reason, the Jesuits agreed to bury Jack in their little campus cemetery. On May 12, according to the Diary, the entire school and members of the community gathered in the college chapel for a service witnesses agreed would have brought comfort to Jack's father. A high requiem mass was sung, led by the college president, Rev. John J. Brown, S.J., and Pantanella gave a sermon. Then eight acolytes, pallbearers and friends walked the body to the cemetery.

In June, a large tombstone — larger than the ones that adorned the Jesuits' graves — was added, and Jack's grave was set off from the Jesuits' by an iron fence.

Most of the others buried in the little cemetery were marked by a modest stone, each inscribed with the deceased's name, birth date and death date, in Latin.

But those stark facts don't tell the full story of the remarkable lives and notable accomplishments of many of those buried there.

Men like Rev. Armand Forstall, S.J., who, according to the University Archives, was a professor of math, chemistry, physics and engineering, and director of the college's Assaying Department. He was renowned for creating and directing the Seismic Station on campus and for bringing one of the nation's only seismographs to Regis.

At his death in 1948, the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America noted, "Almost at the exact time of Father Forstall's death, the large Dominican Republic earthquake began recording on the Regis seismographs."

There also was Brother Ben Tovani, who created the original Grotto of Our Lady, adorning the shrine with trinkets. His name now is carved into a stone on the recently remodeled grotto, now called Our Lady of Loretto.

And Rev. Conrad Bilgery, S.J., whose discovery of mammoth fossils at a Weld County site known as Dent made news and history. According to the March 15, 1935, edition of the student newspaper, The Brown and Gold, Bilgery, "with a corps of enthusiastic students from Regis, explored the mammoth bed at Dent from September to November, 1932 ... when the approach of winter halted them."

The Dent site eventually yielded bones from 14 mammoths, two of which were complete enough to be reconstructed for display. One of them went on display at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, making it one of the first museums in the country to exhibit a largely restored mammoth skeleton.

Records show the oldest birth date on any tombstone in the little cemetery was that of Rev. John Guida, S.J., born in 1828. But predating his Sacred Heart colleagues in age was hardly Guida's greatest claim to fame.

According to Georgetown University's online archives, Guida was a philosophy professor on the Washington, D.C., campus in April, 1865. And, in the chaotic aftermath of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination, Guida was mistaken for John Wilkes Booth and arrested. The Jesuit priest was held in a military camp in Virginia until the real assassin was caught on a farm in Virginia.

And ultimately, Pantanella, the priest credited with building the College of the Sacred Heart and who set aside land for the cemetery, also would be laid to rest there.

The cemetery with Main Hall in the background
A collection of modest tombstones dots the cemetery situated in front of Main Hall.

But those 44 souls would not rest there for eternity. In 1956, college leaders decided Regis had to grow. And the little cemetery, which by then had fallen into disrepair and become the frequent target of vandals, stood in the way.

The Archdiocese of Denver allowed the graves to be moved to Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Wheat Ridge. So, on Sept. 27, 1958, backhoes arrived on campus. By the end of the day, 44 graves had been dug up, and 44 caskets were taken from Regis and moved to Mt. Olivet Cemetery, probably by train.

Christopher Thoennes, of Mt. Olivet, officially known as Catholic Funeral & Cemetery Services of Northern Colorado, found no record of how those bodies were moved, but he said by train would have been a logical choice, given the campus' and Mt. Olivet's proximity to railroad tracks. The 43 men, and one boy, were reburied in new graves, and new grave markers were placed for each. The graves of these pioneer Jesuits and an Irish boy from County Mayo may be visited in the Catholic clergy section of Mt. Olivet Cemetery, not far from the chapel where notable bishops of the Archdiocese of Denver lie.

Most of the original stones are lost to time and weather and progress. But, according to the student newspaper The Brown and Gold, a few have been uncovered over the years in the ground between Loyola Hall and the Felix Pomponio Family Science Center. Those tombstones now lie beneath Main Hall, tucked away in a basement room.

Through the years, ghost stories regarding movements of spirits on the upper floors of Main Hall, Carroll Hall or the campus grounds have been reported by campus newspapers or passed along by faculty and staff. These sightings may or may not be related to the spirits left behind in the absent cemetery or of those who passed away on the campus grounds.

Kim O'Neill is an associate professor and a research and instruction librarian at the Dayton Memorial Library. If you have questions, comments or information about this story, contact her at

Cassidy Nemick and Hannah Miller, in the Digital Initiatives & Preservation Department at Dayton Memorial Library, contributed to research for this story.