When the Columbus Garden Club began its project to restore the imposing 152-year-old crypt of Margaret Boyle Munroe at Friendship Cemetery, the first order of business was to find someone to do the job.
Tommy Frazier Sr., 68, a Columbus native who has worked as a mason since age 15, heard about the project and came out to inspect the crypt.
“It’s really in terrible shape,” Frazier said. “They waited way too long if they wanted to restore it. I told them the only thing to do is tear it down and come back with a new one. But with its history, that wasn’t something they wanted to do. I told them, ‘We’ll do the best we can.’”
Margaret Boyle, a seamstress by trade, moved to Columbus with her family from Pennsylvania sometime in the 1850s, marrying William Munroe in 1860. Munroe was a plasterer by trade who immigrated from Scotland.
Like most of the more than 22,000 people interred at the cemetery, she might have quickly faded into obscurity if not for her biggest contribution to the community that served as the inspiration for her imposing crypt, one of the largest in the cemetery.
Munroe, one of only a handful of Catholics in Columbus at the time, began organizing the city’s first Catholic church, helping bring French-born priest and architect Father Jean Baptist Mouton to Columbus in the early 1860s. Mouton took on the task of designing and building Annunciation Catholic Church on College Street.
“It must have been a difficult thing to build a church during the Civil War,” said Steve Pieschel, whose research as a history professor at Mississippi University for Women constitutes most of what is known about the start of church and, by extension, Margaret Munroe.
“They were just a small group of working-class Catholics, but somehow they managed to come up with the money to build the church,” Pieschel said.
The church was completed in 1869, a year before Margaret Munroe’s death at age 42.
To honor her work in establishing the church, her crypt was designed as a replica of Annunciation. At some point later, it was painted white to more closely resemble the church that inspired its design.
While the Margaret Munroe crypt is among the largest in the cemetery, it was not expensive — no imported marble or granite.
“It’s all brick,” said Pieschel. “That’s because brick was cheap and plentiful.”
It is the plentiful brick that represents the greatest challenge for Frazier, whose estimate for the restoration is $25,000.
“It’s going to be time consuming,” Frazier said. “We’ll have to build scaffolding that goes from one side to the other, then take the bricks off one-by-one, clean them off and stack them. I don’t know how thick the roof is, how many layers there are, but I do know it’s all brick. That’s why the roof collapsed. There’s no telling how heavy the roof was. I bet there are 2,000 or more bricks just in the roof alone.”
Although no contract has been signed yet, organizers seem pleased with Frazier’s bid.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t know who’s getting the better end of the deal,” Frazier said. “It’s hard to know how much work it’s going to take until you start work. It’s definitely going to be a challenge, but I’ve always liked a challenge. We’ll see how it goes.”
Joe and Carol Boggess are leading the fundrasing effort in collaboration with the Columbus Cultural Heritage Foundation.
“For years, many of us have wanted the crypt to be restored, and we’ve gotten several thousand dollars in donations so far,” said CCHF President Nancy Carpenter. “I’m also looking into grant possibilities. We’re just getting started on the fundraising at this point, but it’s going well.”
Tax deductible donations can be made to: Munroe Crypt Fund, c/o Columbus Cultural Heritage Foundation, P.O. Box 789, Columbus, MS 39703 or by calling the CCHF office at 662-329-1191.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]