Finding the story behind the grave
West Linn resident Natalie Wood strolls through a brown picket fence that leads into Holy Names Cemetery on the former Marylhurst University campus, glances at the serene grass field and batch of crosses dedicated to deceased nuns who once served at the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary ministry, and takes a sharp left turn toward a handful of graves that are isolated in the corner.
When she reaches Mary Niclot's stone shrine, she waters the flowers she placed a few inches away the week before.
The grave only states that Niclot was 12 years and five months old when she died on Aug. 11, 1929, and its odd placement and the absence of a family member's gravesite nearby led Wood to believe that all memory of Niclot might have been lost. So she set out to form her own recollection of the girl she never met.
"It made me a little sad," Wood says. "The least I can do is look her up and see if I can find anything about her."
Niclot takes photographs at cemeteries across the nation and makes collages out of the photos, and happened upon the Holy Names Cemetery while attending an event at the campus.
"I've always been a cemetery person, even when I was really young," she says. "I just think they are beautiful. I think this one is particularly beautiful. It's immaculately kept."
So she began returning to the cemetery to take pictures and eventually happened upon the hodgepodge of graves in the corner. Niclot's grave stood out among the group because of her age and the lack of associated information.
Through months of research and help from the Sisters of the Holy Names, Catholic Sentinel Archives and Oswego Heritage Council, Wood has come to know much more about the girl's short life and death.
"I'm not really a genealogical person. I'm more of a 'who is this person and what was their story,'" Wood says. "I get curious about people and want to learn more."
She learned that Niclot's family emigrated from Italy and that her parents lived in Eastern Oregon but sent Niclot and her siblings to lodge and learn at the Christie School, located on the Marylhurst campus and known for taking in orphans.
"The nuns took them all in, educated them, made sure they all had hospital care and they had a full school education," Wood says. "That to me is the coolest thing: that they did all of this with these kids for so long."
As Wood confirmed by obtaining a copy of Niclot's death certificate from the Oregon Division of Records, Niclot was afflicted with mastoiditis, a bacterial infection of the mastoid air cells in the ear, and was treated at multiple hospitals, including Doernbecher Children's Hospital before she died. Wood was heartened to learn that 60 sisters of the Holy Names and 135 children attended and sang hymns at her funeral, and six of Niclot's classmates carried her casket. Niclot's father also attended the funeral but Niclot's obituary noted that her mother was so sick, the family didn't tell her of her daughter's death.
"I was so happy I was wrong that she wasn't just a forgotten child and just buried just because. I thought it was wonderful that they did that (the large funeral) for her," Niclot says.
After completing her research, Wood made a collage that shows Niclot's grave and representations of the girls who carried her casket at the funeral. The piece will be displayed at the upcoming Lake Oswego Festival of the Arts in June.
"Imagine yourself at 12 years old and you're carrying a coffin of your friend and you're dressed in white," Wood says. "The image of that was stunning to me."
Wood acknowledges that she fears being forgotten and hopes to make enough connections so that her memory lives beyond her life.
In the meantime, she hopes to research more graves at the cemetery so that more people will be better remembered.
"I think that's the best honor you can give somebody is just to keep them in your heart," she says. "If somebody is remembered they are not truly gone."
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