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Remembering Piotr: Cecile Jensen wants headstones on ancestors’ graves, starting with her Great-Grandfather’s
By David Crumm   - 03/10/2007

Detroit Free Press

On a windy day last week, Cecile Jensen and Russell Burns, director of the historic Mt. Elliott Cemetery in Detroit, counted their paces across a snowy stretch of ground at the back of the sprawling site. Using directions from a century-old ledger, they were determining the location of an unmarked grave.

"There are thousands of others, just like this one, spread out across the back of the cemetery," Burns said.

When they finally stopped, Jensen spread her arms wide, "I'm trying to feel it. Just think! Right here, 110 years ago, my great-grandmother and her seven children stood at my great-grandfather's grave."

Jensen is haunted by the thought of poor immigrant Piotr Wojtkowiak, laid in an unmarked grave to save money to feed his children.A host of memories connect the retired teacher and author from Rochester Hills to the curly-haired Polish immigrant who died of typhoid fever at 34, while leading a crew digging Detroit's sewer system.

Among the memories are family stories about his wild hair, so unruly that a hat wouldn't stay on his head.

He was a multitalented man. He'd been a locksmith on the staff of a nobleman's manor in his native Poland, and he could bake a tasty apple pie, too. When he and his wife, Marianna, arrived in Detroit in the late 1880s, he first worked at a mining camp in the Upper Peninsula. Later, he found work closer to home in Detroit.

The family stories cover painful details, as well. In the years after his death, for instance, Marianna took in laundry to support her family and was plagued by bleeding hands.

"Their whole story, even my great-grandfather's unmarked grave, is a part of the story of the thousands of Polish immigrants who helped to build this city," Jensen said. "He wasn't alone even in death. There are thousands of unmarked graves in Detroit just like his."

That's why Jensen spent several years researching two of Detroit's historic east-side cemeteries: Mt. Elliott, which Catholic churches opened in 1841, and Mt. Olivet, opened in 1888 because the portion of Mt. Elliott that was reserved for poor people was filling up rapidly.

"Just look at the causes of death listed for the people around Piotr," Burns said, as he and Jensen examined the old ledgers chronicling many of Mt. Elliott's 75,000 burials. "Typhoid, pneumonia, diphtheria -- a lot of this, I'm sure, was related to the city's terrible water back then."

The column in the ledger listing age at death speaks eloquently of hardships in immigrant families. On a page near Piotr's burial, the ages listed are 6, 6, 7, 1 hour, 1 day and 10 minutes.

A century later, a nonprofit corporation oversees the two Detroit cemeteries. The Mount Elliott Cemetery Association has properties in several counties.

"After all our ancestors gave us, it's not right that there's nothing to mark their graves," Jensen said. "So, my goal is to honor them, starting with Piotr and then I'll move on to my ancestors in Mt. Olivet."

To finance this effort, Jensen used her research and artistic background to create two picture books, "Detroit's Mount Olivet Cemetery" and "Detroit's Mount Elliott Cemetery." Published by Arcadia ($19.99 each), the books are available online and at major bookstores.

Profits from such books are modest, but Jensen is hoping she'll make enough to purchase tombstones.

"I'm already thinking about the gathering we'll have at his grave to dedicate the stone," she said. "Just imagine! All these years later, there'll be hundreds of his descendants gathering from all over, coming back to the city once again to honor him."

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