For more than 25 years, Kelly Grimaldi has been restoring veterans’ gravestones with the hope that the refurbishment will allow their memories to live on.
She began in the backwoods of Maine, restoring or replacing the markers of Revolutionary War soldiers as a hobby. That hobby became a passion, as the Wynantskill resident became committed to memorializing some of the nation’s first fallen heroes.
In 2007, Grimaldi and staff members at the historic St. Agnes Cemetery in Menands surveyed the site to find 506 Civil War veterans buried there. They verified service records, looked at plot information and created a database. Four years later they have begun to restore the headstones.
“We have soldiers buried here who are not properly honored,” she said. “We are a nation that promises never to forget our soldiers and to me, never doesn’t have an expiration date. With the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the war this year, I think people are beginning to show an interest in these things again.”
Since June, a soldier within the cemetery can be “adopted” with a $100 pledge. The donation helps to restore the soldier’s stone, or for those left unmarked, finally grants them a place in history.
Grimaldi, who is now the cemetery’s historian, does the work herself.
She said there isn’t a school one can attend to become an expert on restoring historic gravestones, but there are workshops that help by reputable organizations like the Association of Gravestone Studies.
Most veterans of the time period have government-issued markers, which according to Grimaldi were of poor quality. Other stones that were commissioned by wealthier families have been stained by pollutants.
About 175 graves still need attention.
Grimaldi said the stones would have lasted only a couple more decades, but the restored stones could be standing for 150 more years.
“A few years from now these people would have faded into oblivion and generations wouldn’t have known they were there,” said Grimaldi. “I didn’t think that was right.”
Recently, St. Agnes partnered with Lisha’s Kill Reformed Church Cemetery to restore the stone of Pvt. Anthony Nicolini and provide a stone for Sgt. John Shaughnessy.
Nicolini, one of the few Italians from New York to volunteer for the Civil War, was buried in Lisha’s Kill Reformed Church Cemetery beneath a “finely carved, marble obelisk” that was in need of cleaning after being exposed to the elements for so long.
Shaughnessy, an Irishman from Cohoes, was buried in St. Agnes but had no marker.
Both men enlisted within days of each other and ended up in different companies in the 7th Heavy Artillery. Nicolini provided no information on his enlistment forms about where he resided before the war, but signed up in Albany.
The Reformed Church agreed to pay the $100 to sponsor Shaughnessy and Grimaldi agreed to restore the stone of Pvt. Nicolini.
“We’re delighted when someone comes forward to offer this service. It’s a win-win situation,” said Rev. Lisa Vander Wal, pastor of the Reformed Church. There are three Civil War veterans buried in the Reformed Church cemetery.
Little else is known about the other two soldiers.
Grimaldi said she would like to know who cared so much for the poorer Nicolini that they made sure his body was shipped home, and paid for such an extravagant stone. She also wonders why the Italian, who would presumably be Catholic, was buried in the cemetery of a Reformed Church.
“Many soldiers who died in battle were buried in mass graves. That makes the ones who were fortunate enough to get back home even more important,” said Grimaldi. “That can’t be said for thousands of other men, so we at least need to keep the memories alive of the ones we know about.”
For more information or to find out how to adopt a soldier, visit www.rcdacemeteries.org.