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!