On our journey back to Omaha, we decided to make a stop in Le Mars, Iowa to visit the Blue Bunny Ice Cream Museum. When looking on the map to see what exit suited us best off I-29, I noticed there was a small cemetery near a tiny town called Spink. So that’s where we left the interstate.

St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery is also known as Garryowen Cemetery by the locals. The Garryowen community was first settled by the O’Connors, the Mannings, and the Sullivans. If you go to Find A Grave and look up St. Mary’s Catholic Church Cemetery, you’ll discover that 71 of the 315 memorials recorded have the last name of O’Connor. St. Mary’s and the church building are about all that’s left of the Garryowen community.

When I first saw the metal triple cross arch, I was puzzled. Later, I learned the cemetery sign used to hang under the crosses.

You’ll notice in the photo above that there’s a large metal piece with three crosses on it. I had no idea what this was supposed to signify at the time. Later, when I was doing research, I learned that it had formerly held the cemetery’s main sign.

Roots of Garryowen

The Irish families that moved to this southeastern corner of South Dakota had first lived near Dubuque in Garryowen, Iowa. These were immigrants mainly from Munster, Ireland. Garryowen is a variation of the Gaelic for “John’s Garden,” a popular parade and fairground outside Limmerick, Ireland.

In 1860, a group from Garryowen, Iowa, led by a Manning, moved west to start a new community. Between 1860 and 1879, these families attended church in nearby Fairview and their dead were buried in the Fairview Cemetery. When the Garryowen community had increased to 50 families, a parish was finally organized in 1879 to form St. Mary’s Catholic Church. Initially, the Fairview priest was responsible for this church.

The church’s new sign, made out of stone, explains the history of the community and cemetery.

This stone explains the history of St. Mary’s Catholic Church well.

St. Mary’s Catholic Church and the cemetery were first located together on five acres donated by Patrick Mahan. Eventually, the church became too small for the increasing membership so a larger one was built in 1904 at the James Casey farm. It was destroyed by fire in 1924. A third church was built in 1925 diagonally across the road from the cemetery on land donated by Tom O’Connor.

The signs also indicated that in 1993, the diocese of Sioux Falls closed the church. My thought is the community had shrunk considerably by then.

That 1924 church building, I recently learned, still exists. I didn’t notice it at the time when we stopped at the cemetery, probably because it doesn’t look much like a church any longer. I read that it was used as an antique store and as of 2016, the building and property were for sale. I have a feeling it’s not going to last too long unless it gets some TLC.

This is what St. Mary’s Catholic Church in looks like today. (Photo source: Wikimedia Commons)

A brief history of the church and cemetery that I located notes that the first burial at St. Mary’s Cemetery was that of Michael O’Connor. The grave was dug with the help of Vincent O’Connor, who was 16 at the time. There are only about 300 or so burials at St. Mary’s, so it is a small cemetery but well maintained.

It also notes that the second grave was that of Jeffery Donahoe in September 1883. Problem is, there’s no Jeffery Donahoe listed on Find a Grave but a Mary Ann Donahoe who died in September 1883 is. So I think the author is referring to her. As it turns out, Jeffery was her husband. There is no marker for him in the cemetery.

It is likely that Mary Ann Donahoe was the second burial at St. Mary’s Cemetery.

Born around 1831 in Castle Ireland, County Kerry, Ireland, Mary Ann Breshanan married Jeffrey Donahoe. I don’t know when they arrived in America but their first child, Daniel, was born in Connecticut in 1854. By 1860, they were in Table Mound, Iowa and that was about 15 miles northeast of Garryowen, Iowa. So they may have been among those that migrated over to Garryowen, S.D.

Mary Ann passed away at the age of 51 on Sept. 3, 1881. I couldn’t find out when Jeffrey died and he has no marker at St. Mary’s. Their son, Andrew, who died in 1935, is buried near Mary Ann with his wife.

The Mysterious Rev. Kennedy

One gravestone I photographed was for the Rev. Matthiae Kennedy. I’ve never seen what I’m guessing is a form of Matthew spelled that way.

Who was the Rev. Matthiae Kennedy?

The information I was able to glean from his marker was that he was born in Ireland and died in Dubuque, Iowa on Oct. 8, 1887. At the bottom is the Latin inscription: Pro me omnes vos orate, which means I pray for you all.

If he did indeed die in Dubuque, why was he buried in Garryowen, S.D.? Did he ever pastor St. Mary’s? I Googled my heart out and could find nothing at all about him online. Perhaps someone reading this is familiar with him and will contact me.

The Dillon Children

I found a repaired marker for two children of John and Annie Dillon. Born in Camross, Ireland in 1823, John arrived in Boston, Mass. around 1848. He married Annie McCarty in Galena, Ill. sometime before 1853. By 1880, they were living in Spink, S.D. (which is next to Garryowen) and had seven children.

This marker for two of the Dillon children was repaired at some point.

Born in 1860 in Illinois, Thomas was probably the third child in the family. He died on March 16, 1878 at age 18. Anna, who was born in 1871, died in 1885 on April 26, 1883. She was 14. I don’t know their causes of death. Their parents share a marker nearby.

Mother of 13 Children

This marker got my attention because of the words “Mother of 13 Children”. It also has that homemade rustic quality that tugs at the heartstrings.

Sadly, most of Mary O’Connor’s children did not live to adulthood.

Mary Donahoe (or Donahue) was born in Iowa in 1855. She married Irishman Jeremiah “Jerry” O’Connor in 1878. He’d only been in America a few years, having emigrated from Ballyferriter, County Kerry, Ireland in 1875. He came to Iowa to join two of his brothers who were already farming in Iowa.

By 1880, the couple were living in Garryowen where they farmed. When I saw the 1900 U.S. Census, it listed them with four children (Mary, Anna, Joseph, and Luke). But it also noted that the total number of children Mary had given birth to was 13. I can only guess that nine did not live past childhood, which is incredibly tragic.

Mary died in 1905, I don’t know her cause of death. Jerry and the three younger children remained on the farm. He moved to nearby Vermillion, where he taught school and farmed there near daughter Margaret. When Margaret and her family moved to California, he went with them. He died there on Feb. 5, 1935 and is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Los Angeles, Calif.

O’Connor Brothers

This handsome marker for James O’Connor and his wife, Nora, is one of the largest ones in the cemetery. I am fairly sure that he’s the son of Michael O’Connor, the first man buried in St. Mary’s. Michael and his wife, Margaret were also from Ballyferriter, County Kerry, Ireland like Jerry O’Connor.

James and Nora O’Connor both came from County Kerry (or County Cary as their marker states) in Ireland.

Born in 1829, son James may have married Hanora “Nora” Shehan after he came to America. They were both from County Kerry and married in 1850. They settled in the Jones County area of Eastern Iowa and had all of their children there before moving over to Union County, S.D. in 1869. The U.S. Census from 1870 lists eight children in the household. Amazingly, it looks like they all lived well into adulthood.

James died in 1910 and Nora died the following year. At least four of their children were also buried at St. Mary’s when they died.

James’ brother, Thomas, also moved to Union County and raised his family there. He and his wife, Johanna, share a very similar marker next to James and Nora’s. Thomas died in 1907 and Johanna died in 1910.

Thomas and Johanna O’Connor’s monument does not have a cross on the top.

There are small cemeteries like St. Mary’s on country roads throughout states like South Dakota and Iowa. Many are the last remnant of a community whose population dwindled over time and eventually died out. Garryowen is one of them.

Fortunately, those left behind are still taking care of the final resting place of those Irish pioneers.