Saturday, February 4, 2017

Mighty Oaks

The cemetery is almost back to normal after Hurricane Matthew, but one thing that has been changed forever is our tree-scape.  Fortunately the two oaks that dominate the view, one on either side of the central path, are still standing – although one lost a massive limb that embedded itself several feet into the ground when it crashed down – but we have lost several trees at the back and our formerly beautiful red cedar is not what it used to be. In fact, it looks as if there should be buzzards perching on its broken limb, but you’ll be happy to know that the tree service will be out soon to make it more presentable.

 We talked with a local nursery recently about replanting a couple of trees and placing some bushes across the back fence to make up for shrubbery that belonged to other neighbors but was destroyed during the flooding that followed the hurricane. The flood water was mostly salt water, and you soon discover which plants are salt-tolerant and which are most definitely not!

Of course none of the current trees at the cemetery were planted by a nursery; in fact, most of them, with the possible exception of the cedars, were planted by birds and squirrels, our busy little laborers in the planting business. The cemetery was not regularly maintained for years after its closure in 1884. But even before that, the mid-19th century concept of the “garden cemetery” probably hadn’t made it to St. Augustine.

Our planting plan involves only plants that would have been used in the 18th and 19th century South, the active period of the cemetery, in the interests of historical consistency.  The imagery is important and has shaped our ideas on the basic question of what to plant in a cemetery, but there are also practical considerations.
When we think of cemetery trees, we usually think of willows or other elegiac, “weeping” trees, and possibly some somber evergreens here and there, and perhaps a laurel tree.  That is partly because these trees were frequently featured as symbols of mourning in gravestone carvings, artwork on funeral announcements, etc.  They were not always present in the cemeteries themselves, however, for practical reasons. Willow trees, for example, require a huge amount of space and water and were much less common in the ground than in art.  So trees and plants in a cemetery should be relatively easy to manage...not like this Southern magnolia, a towering tree that is leaning against our front wall and crushing it!

Some of the plants seen in cemetery art have been appearing for millennia. The laurel leaf, either in the form of a crown or perhaps as a leaf motif, goes back to Classical times, when winners of elections and competitions or even simply important people wore crowns made of laurel leaves. The laurel was considered sacred by the Greeks and a symbol of remembrance, because the Greek god Apollo wore a laurel wreath crown in memory of the mortal Daphne, the object of his affections, who had been turned into a laurel tree (precisely to protect her from Apollo’s intentions!).   It was incorporated into later Christian burial iconography to mean remembrance and Christian victory over death.

Here at Tolomato, we have a regional variation: the oak-leaf arch, which we see above, coming out of a broken trunk (the latter, of course, representing death).  But an arborist who was working in the cemetery pointed out that the archway must have been made in the Northeast, because the oak leaves, shown below, are those of the white oak, which does not occur in Florida or the warmer parts of the South.  So there are little details that will reveal interesting things about a cemetery.

The weeping willow is a pretty obvious cemetery choice, and has been part of cemetery and funeral imagery for centuries. It’s weeping, after all.  It has the sad and sorrowful droop of a mourner and leaves that look like tears, so it was a natural for the iconography.  This particular willow, with a mourning dove flying up from the branches and little lambs resting peacefully beneath it, is in the ironwork on the gate to the Hernández grave enclosure (mid-19th Century).

Note the ears of corn, a particularly Southern motif, although there are varying interpretations of its significance and origin.
There are also floral motifs, such as lilies and roses.  Lilies were often featured on the markers of children to express their innocence and purity. Here we see the marker for several Mickler infants, who died in the mid-19th century.  Their marker features tear-drop shaped fuchsia flowers.

Roses frequently appeared on the markers of young women, such as this marker for Nena, the only daughter of Gaspar and Teresa Oliveros Papy, who died in an accidental shooting in 1861 at the age of 17.  The marker is embedded in the wall on the north side of the Oliveros-Papy vault at the back of the cemetery.

And of course, other flowers abound on our grave markers. Look for them on your next visit – and by that time, you might even see real live plants coming again to grace our beautiful little acre at Tolomato Cemetery.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Tolomato Meets Hurricane Matthew

How fast things can change!  Two weeks ago, Armstrong Fencing loaded up its truck with the old chain link and barbed wire Tolomato fence and rode off into the sunset, after having completed the installation of a beautiful, stately looking new fence all around the back and sides of the cemetery.

And only three days later, Hurricane Matthew hit - and part of that brand-new fence was destroyed, ironically, by a tree we had saved on the north side of the cemetery.  Its roots weakened by all of the water in the ground, the tree - top heavy from sucking up thousands of gallons of water during the flood - was shoved over by the wind, broke through the fence, and fell against two other trees in front of it. They in turn fell against the roof of the Oliveros-Papy vault, as you can see below.

But before going into more disaster details, let's focus on the positive. As I mentioned, we completed the fencing, including the back and sides, which we didn't expect to get done until many years from now.  But only a couple of months after the completion of the front fence and gate in April, we received two very generous donations that would enable us to finish the back and side fencing. Again, with more serendipity and information from a friend of Tolomato who walks by the cemetery every day and knew we were looking for a fence company interested in this job, we found Armstrong Fencing, a Jacksonville company that had already worked on the neighboring school board buildings (formerly Ketterlinus School).

This gave us enough money to complete a couple of other jobs. Local mason Rick Hernandez, who has ancestors buried in the cemetery, had just finished work on rebuilding a partially collapsed vault and restoring the De Mier tomb, and he came back to give us a beautiful new coquina concrete entryway in front of the new gate.  No more standing in a puddle of water to get into Tolomato! 

Speaking of water, he finished this job just three days before Matthew struck.  Fortunately, the cement was hardened and wasn't affected.

But a lot had happened before that, too. We went through the city's permitting process after having already voluntarily done the HARB  (Historic Architecture Review Board) process and arranging for the archaeological monitoring to be conducted on the places where the 101(!) postholes were dug.  Nothing unexpected was found, although it does appear that most of the burials must have been a few feet in from the modern boundaries of the site.

Then we had an arborist come and evaluate the trees along the side and back, since several of them were too close to the wall or another structure to permit the fence to be placed behind them, and would have to be removed or boxed.  We received permits from the city to remove those that could or should be removed - that is, they were already damaged - and at the suggestion of Armstrong, built box-outs for eleven trees that couldn't be removed or simply looked nice even in their somewhat   inconvenient locations.

But trees can be a problem in an historic cemetery. If there has been a period of neglect, they revert to the wild.  A "volunteer" tree can grow around and "swallow" a feature, such as an iron enclosure post or even a marker. As the tree grows, it ends up dragging the feature out of the ground.

But we solved all those problems - Eddie from Tree Medic carefully carved back the offending tree, in this case, a hackleberry that had swallowed the large post of a grave enclosure. Cutting anywhere near a tree with embedded metal is very dangerous, so he had to do much of it by hand - but rescued   the enclosure post, leaving only a small piece of wood that will fall or can be chipped off. Restoration on that beautiful enclosure (we don't know the names of the "residents") will begin next year.

After some 6 days of work and monitoring, we ended up with a beautiful fence, which ties in with the existing fencing on the front but is unobtrusive while at the same time giving the cemetery a great, almost formal dignity.

And then...Hurricane Matthew struck.

St Augustine was much more devastated than the rest of the country seems to realize, partly because we have a "keep your chin up" tradition here, since it has been devastated many times in its long history, sometimes by its enemies and sometimes by natural forces.  However, as we review the damage, and see the houses with all of their former occupants' sodden and mildewing possessions piled outside, see the demolition crews tearing out whole floors of houses, or even see people who have lost their homes altogether, we realize that this wasn't just Florida weather business as usual.

So at the cemetery, compared to other parts of town, we have little to complain about.  We lost several trees - such as the cedar tree below - and large limbs,  and part of the new fence.

 Now a possibly semi-uprooted or perhaps just water-swollen neighboring tree is pressing against and shattering the restored front wall. We'll deal with that.

We lost one marker, but it was pretty fragile anyway. Interestingly, the volume of water in the cemetery - according to the neighbors and the high-water marks on the wall of the flooded Varela Chapel, it was about 3 feet deep - made some of the older burials collapse a bit and we suddenly saw the indentations for "lost" graves and some slightly raised and solid areas that may possibly be markers that fell over decades ago and can now be retrieved. So we'll try to bring some good out of it!

The cemetery is getting back to shape as fast as possible. Paul the painter came and sealed and painted the raw concrete wall, and landscaper Paolo and the crew came in and did a clean up, aided by the Cathedral maintenance staff.  Then Tree Medic came and started working on the huge downed trees. We're keeping an eye on the big oaks, which lost a couple of limbs but are still standing, because the water that flooded the cemetery was salt water, which is no friend of oak trees. Keep your fingers crossed that the oaks don't start dying.

Our worst loss was probably what you see below, Louise Kennedy's carefully maintained genealogical and historical records, which were submerged under three feet of water in the storage shed where they were kept.  She is trying to salvage what she can and replace the information when she can find its source, but these notebooks were the work of many years and will be hard to rebuild.  But this did give us a new priority, namely that of finding better "office space" than a plastic storage shed. 

We had to cancel the Open Day because it was too wet and dangerous to enter the cemetery, and we also had to cancel a Florida Living History event that we were planning for the end of October. Many people - volunteers, reenactors, etc. - in St Augustine had their lives disrupted to the point that they wouldn't have been able to come, and some of the hotels and motels along the bay front and on Anastasia Island were flooded and damaged. But others are open and in fact some new ones were just about to open and are undamaged. And TCPA volunteers are going to do a cemetery clean-up this Saturday and it will be almost like new - or old - when we're done with it.  So if you were planning to visit St. Augustine and Tolomato, don't give up! You can find hotel space, and we at Tolomato Cemetery plan to be open in November (November 19, specifically).

So we'll be back in business soon. And we were thrilled to see this photo in the local First Coast Magazine:

Above a somewhat elegiac caption is the Varela Chapel seen through Scott Thompson's beautiful gate. The photo was taken about a month before Matthew hit. But everything will be fine before too long and once again, Tolomato Cemetery will be the photographer's dream and the beautiful, restful space it was meant to be.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Summer Tour: San Atilano in Zamora

It's summer and once again time for the cemetery vacation tour! This time I’m in Zamora, Spain, as an Hospitalera (a volunteer who takes care of the pilgrims) at a pilgrim hostel on this particular route (La Via de la Plata ) of the Camino de Santiago.

 Zamora is in Castilla y Leon, in the north-central part of the country. It's a grain growing, wine producing and sheep herding area, very hot and dry in the summer and bitterly cold and windy in the winter. The Duero, a wide and beautiful but shallow and mostly unnavigable river, runs along the base of the cliff upon which Zamora, like all the defensive towns of Castilla y Leon, is situated, keeping lookout over the plains and fields. 

 The Camino de Santiago is the ancient pilgrim route to the tomb of the Apostle St James (Iago is a form of James, hence, Santiago) in Compostela, the Field of Stars, in Galicia on the Atlantic Coast of Spain. The Via de la Plata, which for you Spanish students, doesn't refer to silver, but rather to a corruption of the Latin word for paved road, follows the old Roman road from Sevilla to the north. Pilgrims now take it to join the various other routes that all lead to Santiago de Compostela. 

 But enough of all that! Back to cemeteries! Such as the local Zamora cemetery, San Atilano, whose magnificent gate is shown below.

 In preparation for my visit, I did some web research, and found some excellent articles that had appeared in the local press a few years ago. If you read Spanish or want to rely on an automatic translation, here’s the link: The author is Isauro Perez Raton.

I found out that, like everywhere else in Europe, Zamora had been subject to frequent outbreaks of diseases such as yellow fever (mosquito borne) and cholera, a water borne disease. In the early Middle Ages, people were not sure what caused these illnesses, although there was some (accurate) suspicion that contaminated water had something to do with it. Efforts were made to halt burials under church floors or in the churchyards in towns, but this was piecemeal. It was not until a particularly severe cholera outbreak in 1833 that serious steps were taken. The town fathers of Zamora voted to create a municipal cemetery on the other side of the Duero, about a half-mile away from the river, and named it San Atilano, after a saintly 11th century bishop of Zamora, seen in this altarpiece in the cemetery chapel. 

 To do this, they assessed the local parishes. This, needless to say, was not popular. The arguments went on for years, with parishes seeking exemption from the assessment and also resenting the fact that they no longer received the fees for burials in the churchyard. In addition, there was much citizen grumbling, since wagons that crossed the bridge to come into Zamora were forced to carry construction materials back across the bridge to the cemetery on their return trip. 

 However, the work got done, and the cemetery opened in 1834. There were several expansions over the years, and it now occupies most of a hilltop about a kilometer from the bridge. 

The cemetery is laid out in sections that bear the names of saints, which reflect those of the parishes that bury their dead in this cemetery. 

 There are a number of elaborate family vaults from the late 19th century and onwards. But most of the graves are simply marked and some are within family enclosures.

The regulations of the cemetery allowed for the placement of a named headstone, but without thereby bestowing title in perpetuity to the plot. After a certain number of years, the bones were removed and placed in an ossuary. However, some family vaults are the property of the family, which is indicated on the vault. 

 Originality reigns in this cemetery. Above we see a vault that looks exactly like the Cathedral of Zamora, a remarkable Romanesque building with a curious 12th century Byzantine-influenced rounded dome with a "fish scale" tile- shown below.

Unlike modern cemeteries, which feature flat plaques designed for the convenience of the riding mower, San Atilano leaves the families room to express themselves. Some of the monuments are very elaborate, such as this hand-carved Guardian Angel, guarding a touching photo of the deceased.

 Or the glass flowers you see on this vault.

 But there are some special simple plots: here we see the graves of Spanish soldiers who fell in battle, starting in 1937 (the Spanish Civil War). 

The cemetery is busy at all times, with family members coming to care for graves, the constant sound of the mourning doves in the cypresses, and the many burials from local parishes. Below, a group of mourners follows a casket to the burial place.

There is a funeral chapel near the gate and outside is a box for alms for the “Holy Souls,” that is, masses to be said for the souls in Purgatory.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Tale of a Fence

As everybody who lives in St Augustine – and many who don’t – already know, we dedicated and blessed the new entryway at Tolomato Cemetery about a month ago, on May 7th, 2016.  This part of the project is done, although we’re still working on the back and sides and also plan to improve the stretch from the city sidewalk to the actual gate opening. But leaving aside such tedious details, we’d like to get back to some basic questions we are always asked, such as “How long did this take?”

 Well, it’s actually taken almost 240 years, since about 1777, with the arrival of the Minorcans in St Augustine during the British Period (1763-1784). A cemetery had probably existed on that site during the First Spanish Period, but it was associated with the Tolomato Indian mission village and Franciscan-run chapel located there.  This early map shows the location of the chapel, near the corner of modern Cordova and Orange streets.

Normally, burials in Spanish Florida were under the floor of the church or in the churchyard.  There would have been some kind of a wall around the church, extending the consecrated ground and thus making it usable for burials. There’s no record that the Tolomato mission had such a wall, or at any rate, not a stone wall, but there probably would have been some delineation of the space, such as a wooden fence with a gate or a pillar, etc. In a Franciscan village, the mission bell was frequently hung in this area, but the mission bell at Tolomato was probably located in the four-story coquina bell-tower that is recorded as having been part of the Tolomato chapel.

So we don’t have any record of a wall at this time, but we do have a couple of odd features that are difficult to explain and may have been part of a wall or gate.  One of them is visible only in an old photo and must have collapsed long ago, but the other still exists and causes considerable interest among visitors, many of whom take it to be a very strange vault and ask how people could be buried in this small square space.  This pyramid-shaped pile of coquina is only about a 3 feet square and perhaps a little more than that at its top and is located right behind the vault of Elizabeth Forrester, the oldest marked burial in the cemetery.

We have no answer, except that it was probably not a burial vault, unless it was an ossuary (receptacle for placing bones removed from overcrowded vaults or burials).  But it doesn’t seem to have much of an opening, other than the niche in the top, so it would have been difficult to get the skeletal remains into it without removing a few stones.  Speculation has now moved to having its be part of a wall or marking the boundary of an area, and the niche was perhaps for holding the base of a cross or some other marker and may actually have been part of the original mission site, with its "ermita de piedra," or stone chapel. 

But back to what we actually do know about the wall.

The earliest marked burial at the cemetery (and the oldest marked burial in the State of Florida) is that of Elizabeth Forrester, who died in 1798.  You see it above, with the aforementioned mysterious structure visible behind it.  At some point in the following years, grave robbers broke into the vault and stole Elizabeth Forrester's clothing for resale at one of the local thieves’ markets. They were caught and punished, and in 1809, the Spanish governor, Enrique White, ordered Fr. Miguel O’Reilly, the parish priest for the church on the plaza that would eventually be elevated into the Cathedral of St Augustine, to hire a guard and build a fence around the cemetery to prevent such a thing from happening again.

Fr. Miguel O’Reilly complained about the cost of this and said he wasn’t sure how much money was in the treasury because his assistant, Fr. Miguel Crosby, hadn’t audited the accounts for 11 years! However, we can assume that he went ahead and did it.  But again, we have no idea what it looked like, except that it was probably fairly basic, because in 1811, we see plans to change it.

In that year, plans were produced to completely redo the cemetery, creating a more modern cemetery laid out in a grid pattern with numbered burial plots, and a row of stone vaults and a catafalque at the back of the cemetery. (A catafalque in a cemetery is a structure somewhat like a table, where the casket is placed during the final parts of the burial service.)  We see a stone wall around it with ossuaries in the corners and two pillars for a double-leaved gate. However, the governor died in 1811, Fr. Miguel O’Reilly died in 1812 (his vault is shown below), and the Spanish Empire, already under threat from the independence movements of Latin America and the North American tensions that would lead to the War of 1812, simply didn’t have the money or the will to make such expensive improvements to this modest little city.

So the work was never finished - or even started - and the cemetery continued as it was for decades. Even in the mid-19th century, visitors to Tolomato Cemetery complained about the shabby appearance of the fence – which may have been the same one that Fr. Miguel O’Reilly set up in the early years.

In 1853, José María Casals, one of the Cubans who came to St. Augustine in 1853 to aid the ailing Fr. Felix Varela and found that they had arrived too late to do anything more than bury him, accompanied the parish priest, Fr. Aubril, to the cemetery to look at the land for the Varela Chapel. He comments that it was a lonely resting place, with a wooden enclosure and only four or five half-ruined old vaults, so clearly things had not improved much over the years.

Here we see a 19th century photograph of the old wooden wall. The “gate” seems to have been an interior door that had been lopsidedly hung between the crumbling wooden posts.

Even tourists mentioned its dismal state occasionally, and there were complaints from locals that cows kept knocking the fence down and getting into the cemetery.  But it seems not to have been until 1916 that steps were taken to replace the fence with something more dignified. On April 27, 1916, we see this notice in the St Augustine Record: “To Erect A Cemetery Wall: John Reyes has material unloaded on the ground for an artificial stone wall which will be built along the street line of the Catholic cemetery on Cordova street. The wall will be 117 feet long and 42 inches high. It will greatly improve the appearance of the cemetery, displacing the old fence which, although serviceable, was not very ornamental.”

Note the tactful description, “serviceable,” but “not very ornamental.”  So we may conclude that it looked horrible.

This resulted in the building of the concrete wall along the front and parts of the sides of the cemetery, which we see below in an early 20th century photo of strollers on Cordova Street.  Of course, the streets - particularly Cordova Street - had changed since the first days of the mission and cemetery, with some of them being straightened, some being widened, and some being eliminated.  However, allowing for a few feet that were acquired towards the front of the cemetery in the 19th century and the strip of land purchased in 1853 for the building of the Varela Chapel, thus making the original more square-like area more rectangular, the cemetery seems to have maintained its boundaries.

In fact, it is that very wall that came down to us and which we rebuilt along the front in this latest 2016 renovation, almost 100 years after the Record article.  The wall is made of a combination of concrete blocks, blocks of coquina (shown below), and even stacks of brick: in other words, whatever was at hand.

The 2016 repairs were a little more orderly, and consisted of adding concrete block and rebar pilasters to strengthen the wall while giving it another coat of concrete in those areas where it did not need repair.

And of course, the other major improvement was the addition of two high pillars for holding the beautiful wrought-iron gate, topped by its graceful archway that at last proudly bears the name “Tolomato” and gives this beautiful place the honor that it is due.