Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Connections and Coincidence?

Every year around this time, St. Augustine receives a visit from a group of delegates from our Sister City, Avilés, Spain.  It is also, of course, the birthplace of our founder, the Adelantado Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, so it’s extra-special to us.

This year, the group consisted of Councilman Román Alvarez, who has visited us often and is a scholar of the history of St Augustine and Avilés, and representatives of a project dedicated to the building of a scale model of the San Pelayo, the ship that brought Menéndez to these shores in 1565. The purpose of the visit was to present this remarkable replica in a public unveiling at the Visitor Information Center, and below you see the group from Avilés flanking this beautiful (and carefully researched, extremely accurate) model of the San Pelayo.


You’ll also see members of the city government of Avilés, including the Mayor, Pilar Varela.  Of course, having the last name Varela meant that she would have to visit the burial place of our most famous Varela, Father Felix Varela, who died in 1853 and was buried at Tolomato Cemetery.  Naturally, we had to take a photo of Alcaldesa (Mayor) Pilar Varela standing in front of the commemorative stone set in the wall of the chapel.

Pilar Varela

We were intrigued:  were they related?  Felix Varela’s father, Don Francisco Varela y Pérez, was a military man from Northern Spain who had been stationed in Cuba, where Fr. Varela was born. The last name Varela is widespread in the northern part of Spain where Avilés is located.  This region is known as Asturias, and the name is also found in Galicia and parts of Castilla.  So we had great hopes that we would find a connection.

But alas – diligent Internet research turned up the fact that Francisco Varela was born in Tordesillas, Castilla, and therefore was probably not related – or certainly, not very closely – to Pilar Varela, whose family was from Asturias/Galicia.  Nonetheless, there were some odd coincidences on the visit.  When Mayor Varela read the stone that is set over the crypt and saw that Fr. Varela died on February 25, she looked up, amazed, and exclaimed that February 25 was her birthday!  If Fr. Varela is ever canonized, the day of his death would be his feast day (the day he is celebrated on the church calendar), so she will be able to say she was born on the feast of St. Felix Varela.  Not a bad coincidence at all.


Thursday, February 5, 2015

Flying Over the Fence

Last week, the TCPA had its annual meeting and benefit at the Mission Nombre de Dios Museum. Below you see Sister Bernard Joseph, who works at the museum, chatting with TCPA member Samuel Williams, who came all the way from Tallahassee. The photo was taken by member Norm Merski.


We enjoyed music by our official “chapel harpist,” Mary Jane Ballou, and great nibbles and sangria provided by Patty Kelbert, below, owner of Le Pavillon Restaurant.

clip_image004Patty and MJ

TCPA Vice President Nick McAuliffe – who managed to escape having his picture taken - and Matt Armstrong, at left with Ryan Harke and Chad Light, gave a great presentation on the history of the wall and the fence throughout the centuries.


This served to highlight the title event of the evening, the presentation of Chad Light’s drone video that showed our beautiful cemetery early one bright fall morning.

Pedro Menendez

For those readers not from St Augustine, Chad Light is also known locally as the Adelantado Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, because he is the actor – with a striking resemblance to paintings of Menéndez, shown above from the Wiki article on him – who plays our founder in the various historical reenactments that take place here in the city, such as the yearly Landing Day reenactment in September.

But Chad also has a production company and makes videos, and he offered to come out and fly his  drone over the cemetery and produce a short video for us.


Here we see Chad with his drone, a large drone that he also uses as a boom and dolly for shots when he is filming historical productions. It is controlled with a joystick and can swoop way up – and then get down very close.  TCPA Treasurer Janet Jordan took these photos on the day that he filmed the video.


In the video, you’ll see the drone – or rather, you’ll see what it “sees,” as it cruises the length of the cemetery and hovers over spots of particular interest. You’ll also see Janet Jordan standing in the doorway of the chapel…not even aware she was being filmed!


Chad showed this to the members and invited guests at the meeting and we were all amazed. We knew the cemetery was beautiful, but when you see it this way, from a drone’s eye view, you sense the harmony and tranquility of the site in a way that doesn’t happen from ground level.  Click on the link below and enjoy the video.

Chad Light - Flying Over the Fence at Tolomato

Monday, January 19, 2015

Little Lambs

When visitors pass through the Varela Chapel at Tolomato Cemetery, they often ask about the “lamb on the book.” Of course, they’re referring to the carving on the front of the altar, created out of mahogany somewhere between 1853 and 1854 by Havana cabinetmakers specifically for the chapel.


This is a very ancient image that has appeared since at least the 6th century in Western art, and is known in Latin as the “Agnus Dei,” or “Lamb of God,” representing Christ and often the Last Judgment. The title “Lamb of God,” of course, comes from the Gospel of John, where John the Baptist says, “Behold, the Lamb of God…” Certainly, those with a literary, artistic or especially with a Sunday school background will recognize the book as the Book of the Seven Seals, the book of judgment, which is described in the New Testament Book of Revelations. The Lamb “that was slain” is mentioned numerous times in Revelations, which also declares that the Lamb will open the Book of the Seven Seals at the end of time.

Varela Altar Front

The Lamb is often shown standing, supporting a banner bearing a cross, but there are numerous variations on the theme. The Tolomato Agnus Dei is holding a banner carved with the letters “AD” for Agnus Dei and looking triumphantly over his shoulder. This image seems to be a compromise between the standing lamb and the one we see below, which is a prostrate and not very triumphant looking lamb that appears on the back of a 19th century vestment on display in the Diocesan Museum at the Mission Nombre de Dios in St Augustine. It is done with beadwork and embroidery.

Vestment Lamb

And that image itself almost seems as if it had been based on this very famous painting done in 1640 by the Spanish Golden Age painter, Francisco de Zurbarán, with its touching image of a lamb bound for the slaughter.


But there are other lambs at Tolomato that mean something a little different. In the cast-iron gate of the Hernández family plot enclosure, which we are in the process of restoring, you’ll find two lambs peacefully resting under a willow-tree beside a body of water. This was a very common image in 19th century funeral art, and in fact lambs still occasionally appear on modern monuments.

Hernandez Lambs

Here the lamb represents tranquility, innocence and peace. We also see a couple of doves flying upwards into the willow trees; doves are a very ancient symbol of peace. And the willow tree had come to be associated with mourning in 19th century art, probably because of its gentle, drooping shape and possibly because of a reference in Psalm 136 or 137 (depending on your numbering preference) to the Jews in their Babylonian exile, weeping and “hanging their harps on the willow trees.” Willows were also considered evocative because they grow near still and often dark waters, such as lakes or slow-moving streams.

Lambs 19th century

So this brings us back to our literary, artistic or Sunday school background as we recall the 23rd Psalm, which begins with the words, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” and includes the line “He leadeth me beside still waters.” Now you know are the many meanings of Tolomato’s tiny flock of little lambs.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

A New Year for Two Old Cemeteries

The Colonial Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia boasts this impressive entrance, constructed by the DAR, showing you that at one time, the Colonial Cemetery was "the" place to be buried in Savannah. The cemetery opened in 1750, still the British Colonial period in Savannah, and closed in 1853. The latter date coincided with a yellow fever outbreak, so it was probably closed for the same reason that Tolomato Cemetery was closed, in other words, because of fears the cemeteries had something to do with the spread of yellow fever. They didn't, of course, but nobody knew that the spread of the disease was connected with mosquitoes and standing water until Dr. Walter Reed's research in 1905.  So it was not uncommon in Southern cities to close the cemetery as a preventive measure.

Many of the burials are those of important colonial or Revolutionary War figures. The cemetery was restored by the Garden Club in the 1970s, and is well-maintained by the city and volunteer groups. The cemetery is some six acres in size and there are about 9000 graves, although as you can see, there's lots of open space. This is because many earlier grave markers have fallen over or have been removed because they were about to topple over.  But I suspect that the now open field was a forest of markers in its day.

On the wall above, you see rows of markers that have been picked up and placed against the wall after they cracked at the base.

There were other solutions to the problem of broken markers, such as setting the remaining fragment of the marker into a concrete base or a thick upright plaque of concrete. I also saw some more modern solutions. Several of the markers had steel frames built around them, as you see in the photo below.   While a little unattractive, in my opinion, the frame does support the marker and keeps it not only in one piece, but upright.

Many of the markers had very touching descriptions, and some even had rather dramatic inscriptions. The inscription of Joseph Vallence Bevan (d. 1830), Georgia's first official state historian, reads "There Was None, No None! Against Whose Name The Recording Angel Would More Reluctantly Have Written Down Condemnation."  Below is his ledger stone, which, as you can see, needs a little D-2 cleaner and preservation team scrubbing! 

There were many attractive ironwork features around and in the cemetery as well. Savannah has a long ironwork tradition, similar to that of New Orleans or other 18th and 19th century American cities. St. Augustine, had it had the money, would probably have featured ironwork too, since the Spanish were known for their ironwork.   As it is, there is a fair amount of iron work in St. Augustine, although most of it is from the late 19th century onwards. The style in  Savannah was the English style, although there was a French influence, too.  St. Augustine ironwork is a combination of just about everything, although it is being overtaken by the rather neutral and functional modern aluminum fencing.  This not very good photo shows you the decorative curlicues and embellishments on the Colonial Cemetery fence (if you look hard enough).

Colonial Cemetery, like Tolomato, stands as a peaceful, fenced island in the midst of a thronged, tourist filled city.  It has been a city park since 1896, but the cemetery has been on this site for some 264 years. Tolomato, first as a Franciscan mission and then as the cemetery, has been on its site for somewhat longer than that, probably more than 300 years.  Visitors can contemplate these tranquil places as another busy year comes rolling in, and we wish a happy 2015 - and many years thereafter - to all! 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Last 3rd Saturday of 2014


It’s the last 3rd Saturday of the year, Christmas is almost here, and once again we have decorated Tolomato for the season. We hung wreaths on the Varela Chapel last week, no easy task, since the columns in front are coquina faced with concrete, meaning that the traditional nail or hook is out. Last year we used fishing line looped around the top of the capitals, which fortunately are flat and have a ledge around the top – so we tried it again. 


Still, it took three of us (Elizabeth, Matt and Janet, the latter of whom are in the photo), juggling the wreaths, tying the nearly invisible line…and then trying to get the wreaths winched up to the same height on both columns. But we did it!


We also placed poinsettias at a few of the more notable tombs, such as those of Bishop Verot and Fr. Miguel O’Reilly, and also in front of the sign honoring the many Minorcans buried at Tolomato.


This Saturday, December 20, is a third Saturday, so we’ll be open as usual and you can come and see these things for yourself. And feel free to bring along another poinsettia or two if there is any grave in particular that you wish to mark.


Another seasonal but less inspiring thing to keep in mind is that this is nearly the end of the 2014 tax year! This mundane consideration should make you wonder what Christmas gift you could give that might be tax-deductible, and of course, the Tolomato Fence would be a perfect recipient for such a gift. You can visit our website, www.tolomatofence.com , to make a donation, or if you wish to make a large donation contact us by email at board@tolomatocemetery.com to arrange it. Securities and all other forms in which you wish to donate are accepted, along, of course, with good old checks.

But whether you donate or not, consider stopping by to visit on Saturday from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm. Our “chapel harpist,” Mary Jane Ballou, will be playing carols, and Matt Armstrong will be lending his voice (and his guitar) to the festivities. Of course, there will be the usual tours and information…and there might even be homemade cookies for a few fortunate visitors! 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Pre-Holiday Clean Up and Cuban Doings at Tolomato

Saturday was a busy day! The usual wonderful group from the Flagler College Archaeology Club came out and got the prize: they cleaned more markers in one morning than any other group!  With their president, Elizabeth Valnoha, they cleaned a total of 8 markers.


TCPA Preservation Committee Co-Chair Ray Hinkley, who has worked in historic cemeteries in New York, was there to show them the ropes. Ray and Archaeology Club President Elizabeth Valnoha started by probing the area, because there had been some discussion of straightening  one of the markers. But since the probes revealed that the marker probably has a large concrete base under it, which requires more people and possibly even machinery, we decided that it would be better just to clean the markers and plan a special day – with outside assistance – for straightening them.

Mayne Marker

The marker above is that of the Irish-born Fr. Edward Mayne, who arrived in St Augustine in 1827 and died in 1834, probably of tuberculosis, after a few very stressful years as the parish priest of the parish that is now the Cathedral Parish (it didn’t become a cathedral until 1870, when St Augustine got its first bishop).


The club members – as seen below, Allison Struck, Andrea Broaderick, Shelby Schultz and Elizabeth Valnoha, with TCPA members Janet Jordan and Ray Hinkley standing behind them. – began work on it, and below we see the cleaned marker, which is legible again. The lichen and stains have been removed…but they’ll be back, alas.  This marker was cleaned only a few years ago, and had already become illegible when we started to work on it. In the photo, it’s still damp, but it will lighten, become more uniform, and the lichen will fade as it dries.

Mayne After Cleaning

We cleaned several early markers – 1820s and 1830s – and a number of mid-19th century markers, including a marker for Jane Masters, a matriarch of the important local Masters family, which we hadn’t been able to read before.  It’s located at the east end, over the “door” of a ruined vault, and it turned out to have a long poem at its base.


Janet Jordan, TCPA treasurer, took a break from her books to clean markers. This marker belongs to Margaret Weir, who died in 1869 and was the widow of Samuel Weir; the marker was placed by her son.


Just as we were finishing our cleaning, it started to rain….so we fled. But a small group of us came back a couple of hours later to welcome Jesus Permuy from Miami, along with members of two Cuban exile groups, one devoted to Fr. Felix Varela, and one that represents various Cuban municipalities,  They came to install a plaque in the form of a book, in Spanish on one side and English on the other, dedicated to the visit made in 1892 by Jose Marti to the chapel/mausoleum to honor Fr. Varela.  


But more about that next time…Happy Thanksgiving, dear readers!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Le Puy Connection

Le Puy-en-Velay is a small city in the area of France known as the Haute-Loire, and used to be known for its lace making, although now its main industry seems to be tourism.  People come to Le Puy to start on the Camino de Santiago, which goes 763 kilometers to the Spanish border, or to ski or do some other strenuous outdoor activity in the surrounding mountains – or just to see this pretty town with its three famous volcanic peaks.  In fact, the word “puy” is an old French word meaning “peak,” and these three dramatic, narrow spikes (which are the necks of volcanoes, exposed by erosion) have been famous for millenia.  Nowadays, each one bears a religious shrine of some sort: the large red statue of Notre Dame de France on one, a very ancient shrine to the Archangel Michael on another, and the Cathedral on the third. I was in Le Puy in October, and I took this photo looking through the main door of the Cathedral, through which pilgrims entered, over the town of Le Puy as it rises up the sides of the peak.


And here we see one of the peaks viewed from another peak. The large statue of Notre Dame de France, erected in the mid 19th century, can be seen from the steps of the 10th century chapel of St Michael, Chapelle Saint Michel d'Aiguilhe.  The latter word means "needle" or "peak." In the photo, tired tourists are puffing up the stairs after climbing the 620 steps to the chapel.


Fortunately, they can rely upon getting a wonderful dish of tiny lentils in some café when they descend, since lentils are another one of Le Puy’s special things, so special they even have their own “denomination of origin,” like a fine wine.  Or they could stop and buy a little bobbin lace, made with the bobbins and pillow such as those set out below in the local lace-making museum.


But what is the St Augustine connection?  And the Tolomato connection?

It begins with Bishop Augustin Verot, who was born in Le Puy in 1804, and ended his days in 1876 as the first bishop of St Augustine.  Just ten years before that, he had returned to Le Puy to bring a group of women religious, the Sisters of St Joseph, back to St Augustine with him to teach the children of the recently emancipated African Americans of the town.   Eight sisters accompanied him, barely able to speak English and having little more than good will and courage, and established their first little community and school in St Augustine in 1866, living and teaching in the house that had once belonged to Fr. Miguel O’Reilly on what is now Aviles Street.  Over the decades, they became a large order, teaching all over the state and working in hospitals, and now everyone in town knows their beautiful motherhouse on St George Street, which was designed by one of the sisters.


The order had been founded in the 17th century in Le Puy and was intended to be made up of small communities of devout women who lived together and served the poor in whatever way was necessary.  They supported themselves through donations and lace making, just as St Augustine’s sisters would do centuries later.  It was a successful model and had many members in the area, although like all religious orders in France, it suffered greatly in the aftermath of the French Revolution, when religious orders were dissolved and both priests and religious women were expected to sign an oath of subjection to the State.  The sisters were dispersed from their community, and in fact, several of them in Le Puy and Lyon were executed by the revolutionary authorities, either for refusing to take the oath or for sheltering priests who had refused to take the oath.  The peaceful tree below, with its plaque commemorating Le Puy’s war dead from the various World Wars and conflicts, marks the spot where the guillotine stood and where two of the sisters from Le Puy were beheaded in 1793.  The site faces the City Hall, where officials used to sit to watch the executions.


The order was slowly reestablished after French life returned more or less to normal after the Revolution, and by the time Bishop Verot went back to Le Puy, he was able to get 60 volunteers who wished to go to Florida.  He took only 8, and of those original 8 French sisters, two are buried at Tolomato Cemetery. The others died after Tolomato closed in 1884, and are buried either at Mission Nombre de Dios or at San Lorenzo.  The marker below commemorates both of the sisters buried at Tolomato.

SSJ Marker-1

Walking around town, I came across a burial vault for some of the many Sisters of St Joseph (Religieuses de Saint Joseph) who did not go to Florida.  This large vault is one of three in the North Cemetery in Le Puy, which is closed, with the latest burials being in 2006. New interments take place at a new cemetery in the flat lands on the other side of the river that circles the peaks.  Family members have added the individual commemorative plaques and crucifixes and photographs. 


Notice the crucifixes lined up on the top of the vault, something that we saw on other tombs, too.  This seems to be a custom in this part of France, because all of the vaults and graves bore small – or sometimes large - plaques with personal inscriptions and sometimes a photo of the deceased.  It was a Sunday afternoon, and people were in the cemetery weeding, tending their family graves, and cleaning the plaques.


Visible from this hilly cemetery was one of the other peaks, the peak where the St Michael Chapel is located, watching over the town as it has done for over a thousand years.


I imagine that those 8 French sisters who set out for the unseen land of Florida, almost 150 years ago, took one final look at the beautiful peaks of their city and then prayed that St Michael would watch over them on this journey – a very successful one, it turned out – into the unknown.