Sunday, August 14, 2016
Saturday, June 25, 2016
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?”
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.
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.
Thursday, May 12, 2016
Saturday, May 7, 2016 was the big day! After some 220 years of starts, false starts and even indifference, Tolomato Cemetery finally got the entryway it has always deserved, one worthy of the beauty of the site, the City of St Augustine and, most important of all, the people who rest within it.
Years of work on the part of the TCPA went into this - in fact, we checked back in our records and saw that we first kicked off plans in 2012 - but now it's done. And the results are beautiful, even more wonderful than we had hoped.
In the course of the project, the old chain-link and barbed wire fence on the front was removed, the masonry wall was rebuilt, a new fence was added to the top of it, and a splendid hand-forged wrought iron gate was added to the entryway, topped by the name of the cemetery and a cross in copper.
This project represents a solid four years of work by the Tolomato Cemetery Preservation Association. At our board meeting planning for the dedication last week, a member commented that it seemed like we had been working on it forever – and when Louise Kennedy, our Secretary, checked her minutes, she found that the agenda item first appears way back in 2012! That’s not quite forever, but it is certainly most of the life of the organization, which was only founded in 2010.
The board of the TCPA certainly deserves massive thanks for all the hours and days and weeks spent on this project, ranging from fundraising to consulting with designers and contractors to passing through the HARB (Historic Architecture Review Board) review and other bureaucratic chores. They’re very modest, however, so while you see them scattered through these photos, such as that of the procession to the gate shown below, they wouldn’t step out for a feature photo! But we all know who they are!
Many people were involved in this project, and the purpose of the dedication was to formally open the gates, which were completed only about two days earlier, and thank those many people.We had beautiful weather for the event, held in front of the Varela Chapel and then moving to the gate for the blessing by Fr. Tom Willis.The guests and a few lucky tourists who were just passing by ate cookies and listened to Elizabeth Gessner, President of the TCPA, describe the work and introduce the people who had participated in this nearly four-year-long project.
So let’s start with the donors, without which nothing would have been possible! There were first of all the many, many donations we have gotten through our “Foot of Fence” program, where people could visit the website tolomatofence.com and contribute $10 to “buy” or sponsor a foot of fence – or could “buy” as many feet as they wanted. All of these names and those of all the other donors, along with technical information on the construction and the project, will be included in a time capsule to be placed near the front wall sometime this year.
We also had larger individual donors who made memorial contributions and will have memorial plaques placed on the inside of the front wall. More on that as it happens!
Important institutional donors were also in attendance. They included the Minorcan Society, represented by Carol Lopez Bradshaw, who is shown above talking to the crowd about the work of the Minorcan Society, which raised money by raffling off a traditional Minorcan cast net, handmade by member Mike Usina. Many of those buried in Tolomato are Minorcans, and thus the ancestors of the members of the Minorcan Society, so this was a very fitting moment.
Also present were members of the Rotary Club, represented by Katherine Battenhorst. Because of the very, very generous 450th Commemoration donation made to the project by the Rotary Club, the northern end of the outside fence now bears a splendid new bronze Rotary plaque honoring this donation so that visitors can see it as they walk downtown from the City parking garage. Louise Kennedy, TCPA Secretary, admires the plaque in this photo below.
But there were other people who were crucial in this, and they were present to receive their accolades. Don Crichlow, the St Augustine architect who is descended from about half of the historic families whose names can be seen in the cemetery, donated his graceful plan for the fence and entryway that enabled the TCPA to go ahead. The light fence on top of the wall, conserving the 100-year old curve into the gate, are particular features of this plan. We’ll have more historical information on the fence and gate in a blog post within the next week or two so that you can see its connections with that first project of more than 200 years ago. But meanwhile below you see Don Crichlow talking about his part in this lengthy project.
And then we have the gate! We already see visitors standing in front of it to have their pictures taken and people taking photos of the gate alone, so it’s a pretty spectacular addition that I think will become a St. Augustine landmark. And it was made by a St. Augustinian, Scott Thompson, shown below opening the gate and doing his happy dance because it was finally done and everything was perfect!
Scott is a graduate of Flagler College and still lives in St Augustine, and actually spontaneously proposed his design at an Open Day when he was visiting with his brother and friends. Graduating with a BFA, he found himself gravitating towards metalwork and is now the blacksmith for an ornamental metalwork company in Jacksonville. He researched different styles and designed the perfect one for this site: an 18th century Spanish style piece, light, airy but at the same time formal and elegant. The gate is wrought iron and the name of the cemetery and the cross are copper, so they will develop a beautiful patina with age. Everything was forged by Scott at his shop in Jacksonville.
We also had another “special” heir of Tolomato who came to bless the gates and be the first one to open them: Fr. Tom Willis, the pastor of the Cathedral Basilica (which owns the cemetery). He is a St Augustine native and in his way is also the “heir” of the several St Augustine priests buried in the cemetery, particularly Fr. Miguel O’Reilly, who was responsible for the first fence and gate at the cemetery some 200+ years ago. Below we see Fr. Tom with Scott Thompson, Elizabeth Gessner and Don Crichlow.
Fr.Tom gave an address on the chapel porch and then led the group from the chapel to the gate while Joanie Oliveros Taylor, Don Chrichlow’s cousin and therefore also related to half the people in the cemetery, played “Amazing Grace,” accompanied by our “official Chapel Harpist,” Mary Jane Ballou. And then Fr. Tom blessed the gate while the crowd stood on the inside.
Then, as a visual representation of Fr. Miguel O’Reilly and all his predecessors and the history of this place, Fr. Tom Willis was the first person to officially open the gates and go right on through.
The moment we had all been waiting for! By the way, notice the beautiful curve in the fence, which follows the restored old wall and was part of Don’s design, executed in aluminum by local metalworker Glen Easters.
After that, we all went back to stand around the chapel and eat cookies and take photos, such as those in this post, taken by Nick McAuliffe, Patty Kelbert and Joan Roberts. Meanwhile, Matt Armstrong stayed at the gate, proudly welcoming passing St Augustine visitors to step through the gates.
It was truly a beautiful day and a wonderful moment for Tolomato Cemetery. We are hoping that it is pleasing to both past and present St. Augustinians and to our many visitors. The TCPA is very proud of the beautiful work that finally gives the cemetery an entryway worthy of its history and of the people resting there, and thanks all of the many people who helped in this achievement.
Tuesday, March 15, 2016
In 1777, the Minorcans rebelled after years of mistreatment at the hands of Dr. Turnbull and came to St Augustine. They were accompanied by their priest, Fr Pedro Camps, who served both the Catholics and the Greek Orthodox in the colony. His statue at the Cathedral, shown above, depicts him protecting the Minorcans of the colony.
The group of alumni was delighted with their visit to the burial place of Fr. Varela. They were accompanied by one of the members of the order, Fr. Mario Vizcaino, who is shown above standing to the right of Elizabeth Gessner while she tells the visitors about the tomb of Fr. Miguel O'Reilly, Felix Varela's first teacher. They had earlier been received by St. Augustine Bishop Felipe Estévez with a talk about Fr. Varela. The group is considering a contribution to the improvement of the lighting in the chapel, and possibly towards the purchase of some AV equipment, and they promise to return.