Thursday, December 30, 2010

Charleston Part II–The Really Old Cemeteries

My brief survey of graveyards in Charleston began with the enormous Magnolia Cemetery complex and then moved downtown to the old churchyards, where the oldest burials are located.  We went first to the cemetery of St. Philips Episcopal Church, which is located in a sort of nest of old churches.  The cemeteries run into each other and you can take a very lovely stroll through them.


The gates proclaim that St Philip’s was founded in 1680, although the current church building and graveyard seem to date to the early 18th century.  Below is an old slate marker dated 1766.


The graveyards are small, and the need for space meant that old headstones were often placed in the walls or, in this case, used to make walkways in the cemetery.


This is the adjoining graveyard of a church unsurprisingly known as the Round Church.


Since Tolomato was the cemetery for St Augustine’s Catholic parish, I thought I’d take a look at a contemporary Charleston version, that of St Mary’s Church. British Charleston did not have a very significant Catholic population, and the church was founded in 1789; the first building burned down and the current building dates to 1830.


Some of the burials, however, are earlier, although unfortunately the cemetery was locked and I couldn’t examine the stones and vaults more closely.  However, from the street I could read dates from the late 18th century and the 19th century prior to 1830.


Many of the burials were those of French Charlestonians, and those that I could read indicated that their places of birth had been in France or Belgium.  The marker below bears the words “CY GIT,” which are based on the Old French equivalent of the Latin HIC JACET and, similarly, mean “HERE LIES.”


And that concluded my brief survey of Charleston cemeteries.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Charleston Historic Cemeteries

A trip to Charleston for Christmas gave me the chance to visit a collection of historic cemeteries in Charleston.  I had read about the huge Magnolia Cemetery, which is known for its Confederate burials, including the crews who died in the successive sinkings of the Confederate submarine Hunley, but I didn’t realize that it was part of a large complex of cemeteries strung together along the river and the railroad tracks. They include the Catholic cemetery of St Lawrence, two Jewish cemeteries, several small Protestant cemeteries, a Quaker cemetery, various cemeteries belonging to burial associations and miscellaneous fraternal groups, and a number of cemeteries belonging to traditionally black churches.


Most of them seem to have been founded in the mid-to-late 19th century.  The property was originally a rice plantation and was bought for use as a cemetery in 1850.  Prior burials were in churchyards or on private property, all of them downtown and hence at some distance from Magnolia.

I am not sure when the smaller cemeteries were acquired by their owners, but a quick examination showed burials starting in the early 1860s, so most of them were probably bought at the same time as or shortly after the purchase of the Magnolia Cemetery property.   All of the cemeteries seem to be still in use and some of the gravestones were quite recent.

The Catholic cemetery is named St Lawrence and is dominated by the wrought iron cross on the monument near its gate.  It is quite large and has burials starting about the same time as those of its next door neighbor, Magnolia. There are many Irish burials and some burials from Charleston’s French community, and it is still in use by Catholic churches in the area.  Irish burials include those of the Irish Volunteers, who fought for the US in the War of 1812 and the 1835 War of Florida (Second Seminole War).


Below is the gate to one of the many “friendly society” cemeteries.  I don’t know if the organizations still exist, but these cemeteries were generally fairly well maintained and had recent burials.


There are two Jewish cemeteries.  Beth Elohim seemed to be the largest and had a beautiful gate which was, unfortunately, locked, so I was unable to examine the dates on the burials. It has a number of new markers and recent burials. The oldest one I could see from the road was dated 1897, but there may be older ones that I missed.  It is beautifully maintained and many of the graves bear the small stones or pebbles traditionally left by visitors to Jewish graves.


The black church cemeteries reflect the sad heritage of segregation and are set off by themselves and not very well maintained.  Again, there were some fairly recent burials, but on the whole, I suspected that the churches that had supported these cemeteries had either closed or lost their congregations as the members moved away.  The cemetery below belongs to Emanuel AME Church.


A little later this week we’ll look at the older cemeteries, which are located some distance away in downtown Charleston.  They are mostly found in the churchyards of the older churches and include 18th century burials.  None of these are exactly the same as Tolomato, but it does give you an idea what St Augustine's "arch-enemy," Charleston, was doing at the same time.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Tolomato Cemetery - A Photographer’s Dream

One of our visitors, Joyce Peterson, member of a local camera club, sent us some photos she took on our most recent Visitors Day.  Starting off the collection is a photo of the marker on the Sabate vault, which as you will note has the latest marked burial at Tolomato.  The cemetery officially closed in 1884, but a few burials were conducted (officially or unofficially) in later years, and this one is dated 1892, making it the last recorded burial at Tolomato. It is in the east wall of the vault.


Next we see a photo of what looks to me like the vault of Fr. Michael Crosby, one of the early pastors of what is now the Cathedral.  Look at the moss on its east wall.


And finally, we have a tree run amok. This is a cypress that has burst through and taken over a cast iron grave enclosure.  There used to be many cypresses at Tolomato and they appear to have self-seeded in inconvenient places over the years.  In addition, some of them were probably intentionally planted near graves but were not pruned or maintained and eventually took over the space.  The cypress was a popular cemetery planting because of its somber color and romantically twisted branches; it is also a Florida native plant, and grows heavily throughout Florida without any outside encouragement.


Photographers are always welcome at Tolomato Cemetery.  One local camera club had even planned a night shoot at Tolomato, but unfortunately it was one of our recent icy nights and none of us were willing to brave the cold.  Perhaps the club will try again in a more temperate season and I’ll have some nighttime shots for you.  In the meantime, many thanks to Joyce for these photos!

Elizabeth Duran Gessner

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Another Great Day for Visitors

Despite a horrible weather forecast (you know, that section of the paper that shows the ugly purple clouds, combined with an online forecast that showed an ominous glowing green storm cloud formation marching towards us), we were open to the public again yesterday.

With virtually no publicity and despite the forecast, which never actually became reality, we had 120 visitors.

TCPA docents gave tours and assisted visitors doing self-guided tours.  Some visitors had planned the trip in advance, while others were just walking by on their way to lunch when they saw our sign.  Based on my informal survey, most of our visitors on Saturday were from other parts of Florida, although we also had a number of locals and a handful of people from exotic places like Pennsylvania.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Don't Forget - Tolomato Will Be Open This Saturday

The weather forecast isn't encouraging, but the TCPA docents will be at their places this Saturday, Dec. 18, from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm.  Tolomato will be open to visitors, who may enjoy docent-led tours or self-guided tours or may spend their time taking photos and doing a more in-depth visit to the cemetery.

 See you on Saturday!

Elizabeth Duran Gessner

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Minorcan Christmas Wishes

Approximately one third of the more than 1,000 burials at Tolomato Cemetery are those of Minorcans or Minorcan families.  The Menorcan Cultural Society, founded to keep alive the traditions and memory of the Minorcan families of St Augustine, has been a great supporter of Tolomato Cemetery for decades, and in fact donated the new signs and plaques at the cemetery and paid a significant amount of the cost of the benches.

Every year, Carol Lopez Bradshaw, Minorcan historian, President of the Minorcan Cultural Society and also a great supporter of Tolomato Cemetery, gets together with other Minorcan families and they decorate a tree with memorabilia, such as photographs and documents relating to St Augustine’s Minorcan families. This year the tree will be on display at the city’s Visitors Information Center on San Marco Avenue.  You can see it below in the photo from the St Augustine Record.


The tree is also graced by 400 year-old oyster shells left from Indian and Spanish feasting and dug up just in time for this season at the Fountain of Youth Park by City Archaeologist Carl Halbirt. 

The Cemetery will be open to the public again on Dec. 15 from 11-3. Stop at the Visitors Information Center first and see the Minorcan Christmas tree!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Havana and St Augustine – Together Again

As any historian of St Augustine knows, the ties between Havana and St Augustine are many and very close.  Unfortunately, much of that sense of connection was lost in the chaos of 20th century politics – but all of a sudden, it looks like we might be rediscovering it.

A group of historians and preservationists from Havana arrived to give a talk on Cuban historic preservation at Flagler College.  We had hoped to be able to give them a tour of Tolomato Cemetery, with its important Cuban connections, and fortunately they were able to fit us into their schedule.  Here we are, bundled up for this cold day: Magda Reski Aguirre, Janet Jordan, Elizabeth Duran Gessner, Ana Lourdes Soto Perez, and Julio Larramendi.  Oh, and Father Varela…


It was like a homecoming for them. They saw first-hand the strong connections, not only with people such as Fr. Felix Varela, the intellectual author of Cuban independence, but even with ordinary folk, such as the Huertas/Ripoll family, Cuban exiles who commemorated their great-great-grandmother who is buried in the cemetery.

We are already talking about an exchange program and perhaps about producing a book or at least some essays on the Havana-St Augustine connection.  We hope you will see some blog posts from our Cuban cousins in the future, possibly on the Tolomato Indians (whose descendants live near Havana) and possibly on their spectacular historic cemetery, El Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, which was founded in 1876 and would be similar to Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta,  or one of their many earlier cemeteries that would be similar to Tolomato. 

¡Bienvenidos!  Hace mucho tiempo que no nos vemos…

Thursday, December 2, 2010

“Maria” and Tolomato

One of the interesting things that emerged during our first visiting day on November 20th was the great local interest in Eugenia Price’s historical novel, Maria, published in 1977, and its connection with Tolomato Cemetery.

Many of the historical figures mentioned in the novel are, in fact, buried at Tolomato.  Unfortunately for fans of Maria, virtually all of them have lost their grave markers, if they ever had them, and the exact locations of their graves are unknown.

Mary (Maria) Evans, for whom the book is named, was originally from Charleston and arrived in St Augustine with her husband during the British Period.  However, she stayed on during the Second Spanish Period and dealt with virtually all of the important or at least memorable people of that time, including Jesse Fish, Governor Zespedes, and of course, numerous Minorcan families whose names are still familiar to us.


We hadn’t even considered Maria when we were planning the tours, but we now realize that the subject is of great interest and we’ve got to include it more prominently. Our docents are going to be busy reading (or rereading) Maria in preparation for the next tour.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Tolomato and the First Thanksgiving

Here in St Augustine, we can’t let Thanksgiving pass without reminding the world that the “First Thanksgiving” really took place here, when Menendez de Aviles landed in 1565 and had a festive meal with the soldiers and settlers who had accompanied him and the Indians who were already here and greeted him when he came ashore. 

Is there any connection with Tolomato?  The Tolomato Indians were not from St Augustine originally, but were a different tribe and would not have been present at the landing.  And the great majority of the burials of people of European or African origin at Tolomato are those of descendants of people who arrived in or after the Second Spanish Period and therefore would not have been present at Menendez’ landing either. 

Only about one third of the original Spanish citizens and their families returned to St Augustine after the British left in 1784; the others were new arrivals from Spain, Cuba, other parts of the Spanish speaking world, or even Ireland.  However, there are a few names at Tolomato that go way back, and may we wonder if their ancestors were perhaps present at that First Thanksgiving?


But even if they weren’t,  we offer our historical Happy Thanksgiving wishes to all!

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Grand Debut of Tolomato Cemetery

Weeks of cleaning, planning and training are over and Tolomato opened its gates to the public on Saturday, Nov. 20th.  It was a triumphant opening.  In the space of 4 hours, TCPA docents and other volunteers greeted 365 visitors and received innumerable enthusiastic comments and even some unanswerable questions.  

Docent led tours were offered, along with self-guided tours based on a map of the cemetery.  In the photo below, a tour starts out from the Varela Chapel with docent Elizabeth Gessner while docent Lin Masley prepares for more visitors.


The self-guided tours focused on the same locations, but used a map and numbered stakes stuck in the ground.  There were ten stops on the tour, which was arranged chronologically, following Tolomato from its days as an Indian village through its different 18th and 19th century phases. In this photo, look for the number “7” stuck in the ground in front of the Benet-Baya monument.


The docent led-tour provided visitors with more in-depth information. It also left us with questions on which we need to do more research, as well as indications of people’s interest in particular aspects of the cemetery that we had not taken into consideration sufficiently – such as its connection with the figures immortalized by Eugenia Price’s novel Maria.  Below we see docent Nick McAuliffe, besieged by visitor questions.

DocentNic'We hope to open every third Saturday of the month, and will announce it in advance.  For a good report on the opening, click to read the St. Augustine Record for November 22.  In the meantime, see the happy visitors searching for their no longer forgotten St. Augustine historical forebears.


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Tempus Fugit – Time Flies

This is particularly appropriate in view of Saturday’s “Tolomato Grand Opening,”   which seems to have come upon us very rapidly!  Below is an evocative little sample of the things visitors will see.


This is the plaque that is set into the outside wall of the Varela Chapel, although like everything else in the Cemetery, it has moved around and was originally located elsewhere in the chapel.  The translation into English reads:  THIS CHAPEL WAS ERECTED BY THE CUBANS IN THE YEAR 1853 TO PRESERVE THE REMAINS OF FATHER VARELA.

And above the words is one of the more dramatic 19th century symbols of mortality: the winged hourglass.  It is made even more dramatic by the fact that the wings look like bat wings.  Its purpose is to remind the living that time flies and they should consider how they are using it.

Typical of 19th century graveyards, Tolomato has grave markers and tombs that feature inscriptions and symbols that ranging from touching and poetic to stark and even somewhat ominous.  But that’s why people like it.

A visitor the other day pointed out that all of this has disappeared from modern cemeteries, with their neutral, impersonal columbariums and riding-mower friendly flat markers.  A point to consider.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Teaching About Tolomato

Just a reminder to all that tomorrow is the big day where the docents learn the secrets of Tolomato Cemetery to impart to others.

I got a great e-mail from Susan Parker today.  She has done research on the Tolomato mission Indian village and is interested in sharing this with TCPA members and fans. And Sarah Miller from FPAN has offered to give us a GPR presentation.  So stay tuned.

But mostly this afternoon I have been out distributing flyers. Of course, I discovered that I had a bizarre typo after I had run off 25 of them, and I also discovered that they don't scan and PDF very well. But if you're interested, here's what we are posting all over town:

- Elizabeth Gessner

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Docent Training this Saturday, November 13

We will have a docent training session this Saturday, starting with a brief presentation at the home of a board member who lives near the cemetery and then moving on to Tolomato itself. At the cemetery, we will walk the route that we have planned for our first open day, November 20, which is the following Saturday, and volunteers can get a hands-on (or maybe that’s feet-on?) feel for the job.

If you indicated on your membership or contact form that you wanted information on activities, you’ve already received notice of the training - but we'll send a reminder today or tomorrow! And even if  you’re not sure you want to commit to being a docent on November 20 (or on our subsequent open days), you might enjoy learning more about the cemetery for future reference. Or just to dazzle your friends…

If you need more information, contact us at

- Elizabeth Gessner

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Minorcan Society Memorial Mass - Nov. 6, 2010

The Minorcan Cultural Society had their annual memorial mass for deceased members and family members at Tolomato Cemetery on Saturday, November 20. This was a particularly special occasion since the society had recently donated new signs and benches to the cemetery. 

Things were also different this year because a contingent from the Haitian American Historical Society drove all the way up from Miami to attend the mass. The HAHS and the Haitian ambassador had donated a bench in honor of General George Biassou, the Haitian liberator and General in the Spanish Army, and this bench and its plaque were also dedicated at the event.

The video below will show you a few of the day's highlights. Notice the heavy coats and jackets. Winter unexpectedly arrived in St Augustine this weekend!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Time and Tolomato Times

This is it! This is the start of the Tolomato Cemetery Preservation Association blog, where you'll find out all about events that we have had and the events that we plan to have. You'll also get bite-size installments of Tolomato history, cemetery preservation information and connections, and some lovely photographs of this truly beautiful site.

The TCPA was founded just this year, inspired by Matthew Kear's 2009 thesis, In Reverence: A Plan for the Preservation of Tolomato Cemetery, St. Augustine, Florida.  His thesis was the catalyst that finally brought together a group of St Augustine residents involved in other aspects of the St Augustine historical community, ranging from archaeology to tourism, and got us moving in the same direction.  With the support and help of the Cathedral Basilica of St Augustine, the owner of the cemetery, we are already addressing the problems of delayed maintenance, the need for access and interpretation, and plans for urgently necessary preservation work in the near future.  You can learn more about us on our website, Tolomato Cemetery.

Follow us in this work.  Participate if you can, perhaps by joining the TCPA, perhaps by attending our events. And if you don't live in St Augustine, plan on visiting us soon!