Donna Holmes

This devoted Relessey Cemetery Board volunteer helps the group manages the graveyard next to the Mono church, which dates back to the 1870s.

September 24, 2021 | | Over the Next Hill

Snapshot: Meet a Community Elder

The picturesque little church at a rural Mono intersection has been a big part of Donna Holmes’ life for as long as she can remember. However, her formal involvement with the six-member Relessey Cemetery Board, which manages the graveyard next to the church, began in 1989 when she became its hard-working secretary-treasurer.

Donna Holmes at the door of the Mono pioneer church that has been part of her life for as long as she can remember. “It’s where real life happens,” she says. Photo by Brenda Holmes.

Donna Holmes at the door of the Mono pioneer church that has been part of her life for as long as she can remember. “It’s where real life happens,” she says. Photo by Brenda Holmes.

A fifth-generation descendent of Irish-Protestant homesteaders who arrived in the area in 1830, Donna has been married to Howard for 57 years, is the mother of two children and grandmother of four. She is unable to picture her life without the presence of the church on the corner. “I was married here, my kids were married here, and my parents are buried here. It’s where real life happens,” she says.

Originally Methodist, the first service was held at the church on September 4, 1870. It was called Ebenezer Church at that time, but the name was changed after the local postmaster named the community for his old home in County Tyrone, Ireland.

Unfortunately the structure, with its distinctive crenellated tower, clear-glass Gothic windows, and painted and stencilled wooden ceiling, was destroyed by a freak windstorm in 1909. But the community rallied to rebuild, with fundraising picnics, socials and fowl suppers, fostering ties of kinship, community, and often romance.

Time-stained headstones in the cemetery next to the church date back to 1867. However, official burial records were lost in a house fire in 1920. Traditionally, local parishioners claimed their place in the cemetery and tended their site, but as the decades passed, families moved away and church attendance fell, the graveyard languished unkempt and overgrown with weeds.

Again the community rallied. “The Relessey Cemetery Board was created in 1950 to bring structure and continuity to the graveyard, and to oversee its maintenance and improvements,” says Donna. “The church held its last service in December of 1964, and the structure, designated of local historical and architectural significance, was purchased by the cemetery board for $2 in 1968.”

Ever-present unsung volunteers like Donna, her family and her neighbours, plus devoted silent sponsors, honour the memories of those buried there, and keep the community grounded and its history vibrant in the process.

About the Author More by Gail Grant

Gail Grant is a freelance writer who lives in Palgrave.

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