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Holyrood veteran’s grave captivates St. John’s woman who wants to restore it

Yvonne Besso of St. John's often visits the graves of relatives at the North Side Cemetery in Holyrood. She took notice of a gravesite belonging to Capt. Thomas Dwyer, which needs some maintenance.
Yvonne Besso of St. John's often visits the graves of relatives at the North Side Cemetery in Holyrood. She took notice of a gravesite belonging to Capt. Thomas Dwyer, which needs some maintenance. - Joe Gibbons

Doctor died of effects of First World War 'overwork'

HOLYROOD, N.L. —

In the back corner of the North Side Cemetery in Holyrood lies Capt. Thomas Dwyer, a doctor who served in the First World War and later died at 40, his death remembered with an elaborate but now seemingly lonely gravesite.

It caught the eye of Yvonne Besso of St. John’s, who visits her parents and grandparents in Holyrood at least once a month.

Capt. Thomas Dwyer was a doctor who served in the First World War and died at age 40. He is buried in Holyrood.
Capt. Thomas Dwyer was a doctor who served in the First World War and died at age 40. He is buried in Holyrood.

Besso has no connection to Dwyer, but comes from a family that respects military history — she  is the daughter of a war bride and Second World War veteran who served with his brothers in the Royal Air Force. One of the Besso brothers died in action. She said she and her relatives are tempted to give the gravesite some attention.

But she doesn’t want to offend any of  Dwyer’s relatives, so she hopes that if there are any of his family left, they will give her permission to tend the grave.

“It’s sad. I come up here and think, who are you and where are your families?” Besso said as she glanced around at other nearby graves that are seemingly forgotten, judging by their overgrown grass and rusty fencing. Still, many others, despite their age stretching back several or more decades, are remembered with flowers and other personal touches. 

Dwyer’s grave may be the most ornate in the graveyard — his face is carved into the marble monument that towers over the roomy plot, which is surrounded by a gated, ornate wrought iron fence set in a concrete retaining wall inlaid with crosses. The wall is cracked in several places and the fence, though sturdy, is rusty.

His parents, who survived him, are remembered on the side of the tall gravestone, which is obscured by an evergreen tree.

“Think of the money that cost in today’s dollars,” Besso said of the headstone and fence.

“I thought about coming out and painting the fence, but I don’t want to do it without the approval of somebody. … I have never seen anybody here.”


Not seen

Gordon Crawley, the man who oversees the Roman Catholic cemeteries in Holyrood, and a neighbour to the graveyard known as Holy Cross Cemetery, said he’s never seen a Dwyer at the annual flower service, a memorial event traditionally held in many cemeteries.

There’s a maintenance person hired every summer to mow the cemetery, trim trees and keep it clean and tidy.

However, they don’t go into people’s plots unless there’s a collapsed grave or special circumstances or requests.

Crawley says he learned over the years that families can be particular.

“People get very touchy even if you cut the grass too close. … They can be very touchy when it comes to cemeteries,” said Crawley, whose care for the immortalized began several decades ago at age 10 when he started accompanying his father to the South Side Cemetery, where his father’s parents are buried.

He said the Dwyer plot has not been touched in a very long time. 

“Whoever put that there put a lot of detail in that,” Crawley said of the monument.

“That’s quite the headstone.”

He said if no family members come forward and someone wants to help clean the plot up, that would be fine and dandy.


Among heroes

Linda and Stuart Fraser, volunteers at the Holyrood Historical Society Inc., said Dwyer listed his father as next of kin on military records.

Dwyer is also among the hundreds who will be listed in the volunteer society’s forthcoming book “A Gathering of Heroes,” which memorializes those from Conception Bay Centre — small communities from Holyrood to Colliers — who served in the First World War and Second World War.

Linda and Stuart Fraser are volunteers with the Holyrood Heritage Society.
Linda and Stuart Fraser are volunteers with the Holyrood Heritage Society.

Dwyer’s epitaph bears the logo of the Canadian Medical Corps and reads, “Sacred to the memory of Capt. Thomas R DWYER, M.D.C.M. Served overseas in the Great War — McGill University Honour Roll 1918, medical practitioner at Grand Falls and Holyrood 1920-27. Died Dec. 6, 1927, 40 years.”

On the side of the stone, his father, justice of the peace Richard Dwyer, is remembered. He died in 1934 at age 74, and his wife, Ann, is also memorialized there; she died in 1940 at age 76.

According to Thomas Dwyer’s obituary, he had been ill for awhile and had been in the General Hospital before being sent home. That obituary lists his age at death as almost 36.

The obituary said Dwyer registered with the Nova Scotia Medical Board in May 1917, the General Medical Council of Great Britain in 1919 and the Newfoundland Medical Board in 1920.

Previous to his enlistment in the Canadian Army Medical Corps, in May 1917, he was house surgeon in the Victoria General Hospital.

After demobilization from the Canadian Army, he took a post-graduate course from the New York Post-Graduate Medical School and Hospital, and at the Lying-in Hospital in New York City.

In August 1920, he joined the staff of the Lady Northcliffe Hospital in Grand Falls and then took up practice in Holyrood.

Dwyer had one sibling — a brother, Harbour Main’s longtime parish priest M.P. Dwyer — and no other survivors besides his parents.

His military funeral took place the day after his death, complete with firing party, as well as mourners from Catholic, military and medical fraternities.


Lasting effects of war

Dwyer’s father’s obituary said Thomas Dwyer had died in the prime of his life as a result of “overwork” as a medical transport officer in the Great War, indicating he had lasting effects from his war service.

His father Richard’s obituary also noted the prominence of the family.

“There was no better patriot or well-wisher of Newfoundland than the late Richard Dwyer. The many who stopped at his hospitable home will have vivid recollections of his animated discussions upon those topics that were so dear to him and of the rich fund of knowledge from which he drew many practical ideas for the advancement and prosperity of his native land,” the obituary noted.

He was the master at the Holyrood High School from 1893-1924, and under his regime, according to the obituary, the school “became one of the foremost teaching establishments in the island and today many of its graduates occupy prominent places in the professional and commercial life of the colony and elsewhere.”

Appointed commissioner of the Supreme Court in 1900, he also was a justice of the peace and for many years acted as returning officer in the general elections for the district of Harbour Main. He was also the longtime secretary of the Holyrood Star of the Sea Society.

barbara.sweet@thetelegram.com
Twitter: @BarbSweetTweets

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