Together at last

Together at last

Michele Sorensen, left, and Renee Merkel hold up a photo of their grandparents, Eva and John St. Andre. The sisters, along with other family members, are looking forward to uniting their grandparents’ remains after 75 years apart during an interment ceremony at St. Patrick Cemetery in Whitinsville, Mass., in May.
After 75 years, family discovers burial site to unite grandparents’ remains

WOONSOCKET – On May 14, two lovers separated for 75 years by disease and hardship will be reunited at last.

That is how Michele Sorensen of Norwalk, Conn., and her siblings and cousins see the final burial of their grandmother, Eva Desmarais St. Andre, alongside her husband, John St. Andre, in St. Patrick Cemetery in Whitinsville, Mass.

The young couple was married in Precious Blood Church in Woonsocket in 1928 but had only 15 years of marriage together before John died of stomach cancer and was buried in an unmarked family plot in St. Patrick Cemetery. Now, nearly two decades after Eva’s death in 1996, uncovered family records have allowed the relatives to locate their grandfather’s burial site and unite the couple under a new headstone in an interment ceremony in May.

“It is indeed a love story,” Sorensen said during a phone interview.

The story begins in Webster, Mass., where Eva and John met at a dance amid the bustling mill life of 1920s New England. With the approach of the Great Depression, John left to find work in Detroit, Mich., while Eva, from a French-speaking family, remained in Woonsocket to work at a textile mill. For four years, the young couple corresponded across the distance, sharing stories about their jobs and the life they hoped to build together someday.

“You know I’m always building castles for you, Eva, hoping someday it’ll all come true,” John wrote in a letter, maintained by the family, dated Aug. 27, 1926.

Following John’s return from Detroit, they were married at Precious Blood Church and moved to Sea Cliff, N.Y., where John found work on a power plant for the Long Island Lighting Company. They stayed in New York and raised six children, but the happy life they had envisioned was soon overshadowed by illness. In 1943, John died of stomach cancer at the age of 37, a disease Sorensen believes she found hints of in references to stomach problems in his early letters.

Following John’s death, his body was returned to Whitinsville, where it was buried in a family plot alongside his parents and brother. The family could not afford a headstone, and over the years, the location was lost to memory as Eva and her children continued their life on Long Island. When she died in 1996, her body was cremated and the ashes kept by her children, who had no knowledge of the family plot where their grandfather’s body lay.

“My Uncle Dave began to say that this is not right,” shared Sorensen. “‘Here I have the ashes of my mother and I never did right by her when she died.’ We just didn’t think about looking up the genealogy and finding out where he was.”

It wasn’t until Sorensen’s aunt and Eva’s daughter, Audrey, died, leaving behind the old photographs and love letters that had been in her possession, that the family discovered a renewed interest in their grandparents’ history. They used online genealogical tools to look up prior generations and were surprised to find John’s name on church records indicating his burial at the Whitinsville cemetery. Further records at the cemetery helped them locate the family plot, and in December, they had a marker placed at the site to memorialize John along with his parents and brother.

“It’s really this generation, my generation, that said, ‘You know, this is so interesting, we want to know our forebears. We want to have this sense that now I have visited the cemetery twice in the last six months,’” said Sorensen.

In May, the family will complete the process when they see their grandmother’s ashes interred alongside her husband’s remains. For Eva’s surviving children in particular, the burial is a great relief, a reunification of two lovers separated by poverty and circumstance, just as when they had written from Detroit and Woonsocket about their plans for a better life.

“There’s a great sense of relief and gratefulness that this is being corrected,” said Sorensen.

The burial also provides an opportunity for the family to reconnect. On May 13, the day before the ceremony, they plan to gather at River Falls Restaurant in Woonsocket to commemorate the occasion and connect with any cousins or Desmarais relatives who have lost touch over the years. Woonsocket, Sorensen said, remains a special place in her family’s memory and is a fitting location for the reunion as the hometown where her grandmother grew up.

“My mother taught us to speak French, so I feel a strong connection to the French side of my family, and that’s all in Woonsocket,” she said.

The following day, they’ll see their grandparents united under a common headstone in a ceremony attended by the children and grandchildren they once dreamed of in their letters. The headstone, which features two birds perched atop a flowering branch, includes the words “Together again, forever” – a fitting epitaph, say the children, for two lovers reunited at last.

The photo of Michele Sorensen and Renee Merkel's grandparents, Eva and John St. Andre.
An undated family photo shows Eva Desmarais St. Andre, top right, with her children, in back from left, Gloria, Jean; in middle, John, David and Audrey; and in front is Paul.

Comments

What a beautiful love story, and wonderfully written. Such a loving family to go this length in reuniting them. Thank you for sharing. God bless.