Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Christmas at Tolomato Cemetery

This year, thanks to a suggestion from TCPA member Buff Gordon, we decided to decorate for the holidays.  We went to a local Christmas tree lot and got two lovely real fir-branch wreaths, which we hung with nylon fishing line and which so far have remained hanging through some very rough weather!  Knock wood...

The weather today was beautiful clear winter weather, however, and the cemetery was at its most beautiful.  I went out to take a photo of the wreaths for this blog and spent the morning snapping various scenes, although I am certainly not a great photographer, alas.  But little details stood out in the bright sun. Below is the trefoil Chi-Rho symbol on the vault of Fr. Miguel O'Reilly (d. 1812), reflecting the trees in the little pool of rainwater that always collects in it.

During my photographic excursion, our resident fish-hawk, seen here against the almost unreal blue sky, watched me like...well, like a hawk.

Tolomato Cemetery will be open this Saturday, December 21, from 11-3, for visits and tours.  It's supposed to be another nice, clear day, and all photographers are hereby reminded to bring their cameras!

Monday, December 9, 2013

A Cuban Star

Last week, we had a visit from a large group from Miami, members of the Asamblea Provincial de La Habana, a group of Cubans living in the US who are very devoted to the city of their birth, Havana.  The city of St Augustine was closely connected to the city of Havana throughout most of its early centuries, and Cubans have a special feeling about St Augustine.  Despite the cold and gloomy weather, their excitement about being in St Augustine – and especially at Tolomato - shone through.

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Added to this is the fact that the current bishop of St Augustine, Bishop Felipe Estevez, was born in Havana and spent his childhood there.  Before it became a diocese, St. Augustine was administered by the bishops of Santiago de Cuba and then Havana, but this is the first time since becoming a diocese in 1870 that the town has had a Cuban-born bishop, so this made the visit even more special.  Above we see the bishop greeting the Cuban delegation as they arrive.  Docents Louise Kennedy, Pat Kenney, Mary Jane Ballou and Elizabeth Gessner were also on hand to welcome the group and show them around the cemetery.


The purpose of this visit was to install the star commemorating the place where the Cuban liberator Jose Marti knelt to pay his respects at the tomb of Fr. Felix Varela, regarded by Cubans as one of the intellectual heroes of Cuban independence.  His writings on freedom of conscience and political freedom were crucial to the 19th century independence movement, and while Cuba has had some significant problems since that time, Fr. Varela has remained a Cuban hero. He is also greatly respected in modern Cuba for his educational theories. 


The star on its accompanying granite base will be installed in the floor near the crypt where Fr. Varela was buried. His remains were moved to Cuba in 1911, but the place is still significant. In fact, the plaque could not be placed permanently because we are in the process of restoring the ledger stone, which was damaged after having been hung on the wall for decades after Bishop Verot was also buried in the crypt in 1876.  The area around the crypt opening will be repaired with marble and the stone itself will be cleaned and reset, and then the Marti star will be installed permanently.


But in the meantime, we had a wonderful visit from this warm, enthusiastic group of people who are among the many who find their roots and connections at Tolomato Cemetery.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Just where is Minorca, anyway?

This is a frequent question when we discuss the Minorcans at Tolomato Cemetery, and I’ve never been sure that people can really visualize it.  We might have to attach a map of Spain to the Minorcan informational sign that we have at the cemetery.


Minorca is one of the Balearic Islands (Islas Baleares, in Spanish) that are located off the northern Mediterranean coast of Spain (the three blobs at the center right in the above photo). The Spanish spelling is Menorca, and you will see it spelled both ways in St. Augustine.

Like all Mediterranean islands, they had a long history of being overrun by diverse invading forces, and during their existence have been dominated by unknown pre-historic peoples probably from the Levant, the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the Kingdom of Aragon (a largely Catalan-speaking pre-unification Spanish kingdom), modern Spain, and even, at various times, by England and France.  The big island, Mallorca, also had a large and ancient Jewish population, probably established during Roman times and the Diaspora.

Minorca and the other Balearic Islands are now part of Spain, and form one of the 17 “comunidades autonomas” (territorial divisions similar to US states) into which Spain was divided in its 1978 Constitution. 

There are three important islands that make up the Baleares. Minorca refers to the “small island,” while its neighboring island is named Mallorca, or the big island.  As you can see from the photo of Minorca below, taken when I was actually on my way to Mallorca last spring, it is indeed a small island.


Much of it is very dry and windswept, particularly the northern part, which is subject to a constant gale from the Mediterranean and features trees that are practically lying on their sides.  That part of it has been established as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve because of the unusual or even unique animals, plants and natural conditions found there.  It is also littered with prehistoric sites (dolmens, menhirs, etc.) from whatever the mysterious peoples were who first arrived at the island thousands of years ago. The rough coast is also the site of many shipwrecks and is of great interest to marine archaeologists.

The other side of the island is a little more moderate in climate, and features the old city of Ciutadella (“Citadel”) as its main city.  But the city on the east side of the island, Mahon, is the capital and the one from which “our” St Augustine Minorcans set forth. 

The British had captured Minorca in the War of the Spanish Succession in 1708 and settled in Mahon for several decades, losing the island to the French in 1756. However, Minorca was returned to England in the settlement of the Seven Years’ War, the same one that led to St Augustine’s British Period (as a result of the treaty settling that war) and the English occupied it until 1783, as they did St. Augustine. And it was for this reason that the Scottish Dr. William Turnbull, who brought the Minorcans to Florida, based his operations there.  Below we see the Hugo Ohlms mural in the Cathedral that depicts the arrival of the Minorcans in St Augustine after they fled Dr. Turnbull’s indigo plantation.

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Mahon is the second deepest port in the world and was a site of British naval activities. For this reason, Minorca was also the setting of parts of the famous Patrick O’Brian nautical tales (such as Master and Commander) concerning the fictional British commander Jack Aubrey. 

The British left two further important cultural items: cows and gin.

Spanish cheeses are generally made of sheeps’ milk or goats’ milk, and cow milk cheeses are rare except in a couple of parts of “wet Spain,” such as Galicia, which has enough rain to provide grazing for cows.  Somehow the British, devoted as they were to butter and mild cheeses, managed to raise milk cows on Minorca and left behind a cows’ milk cheese heritage reflected in the Spanish cheese known as “Mahón.”


Accompanying this is the British-descended local gin production and a local gin and lemonade drink that is popular on the island.

Mahon is also famous as the source of the name of the condiment now known as mayonnaise, a variant on a Catalan aioli (oil and garlic or egg based sauce) that became popular in France and England after their conquests of the island. 


The British ceded Minorca to Spain in 1783, briefly recaptured it during the French Revolution, and after disputes with France following the Revolution, in 1802 they once again returned it to Spain and it has been part of Spain ever since.

Mahon reflects this past, for when you come into the harbor on the ferry from Barcelona or one of the huge cruise ships that docks there, you will glimpse a row of high, narrow, long-windowed 18th century British houses on one side – and the low, flat-roof, thick-walled, limewashed traditional Minorcan masonry houses on the other side. Or at least you did,  years ago when I first saw the harbor. Now, of course, now these are nearly concealed behind vacation “chalets” or condos built in recent years.


Let’s see…what else?  Modern Minorca (Menorca, in Spanish and Catalan) is now a big tourist destination, known for its little calas or coves with blue waters and white sands. It also many wealthy semi-resident foreigners docking their yachts in its harbors, and supports a charming rural tourism industry in the more remote farms and towns.  The languages are Catalan and Spanish, but you can hear virtually any other language in the world as you go through the old stone streets of Ciutadella or Mahón.


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A Fungus Among Us

When we were at the cemetery last week, Louise and Nick spotted what looked like invading columns of fungi approaching from points on the south side of the cemetery.


We went over to investigate more closely and found that these dense clusters of light brown fungus were thriving at the base of trees that had been cut earlier in the year or were dead from some other cause. 

Thinking it would be an easy task to identify them, I went to the internet – but I had forgotten how many thousands of kinds of mushrooms exist in the world!  Finally I came up with a possible name for our invaders: amillaria tabescens, known to its friends as the ringless honey mushroom.


This fungus is actually growing from a root system underground and follows the course of decaying roots and branches of dead trees.  It is common in the fall, especially after patches of rainy weather, and we met all the qualifications for its survival: warm, moist soil, yummy rotting vegetation, and cozy shade.

It is very short-lived and has probably already dissolved back into the ground from which it seemingly emerged. But watching the natural phenomena come and go at Tolomato Cemetery is one of the most interesting features of visiting the cemetery.

Monday, November 4, 2013

All Souls Day at Tolomato Cemetery

November 2 is known as All Souls Day in the Catholic liturgical year, and it has traditionally been the day for visiting cemeteries, praying for the repose of the souls of the people buried there and blessing the graves.  Because November 2 fell on a Saturday this year, we were able to open the Tolomato Cemetery for a special visit on All Souls Day.

The day was gray and rainy, but fortunately it had ceased to pour by afternoon, when Fr. Tom Willis and Fr. James Kaniparampil came over from the Cathedral to bless the graves. In the photo below, they wait for people to assemble from the various points of the cemetery, where they had been visiting graves or seeking information about ancestors.


Once again, we had visitors who discovered that they may be related to some of the St Augustinians now buried in Tolomato Cemetery.  The couple below are of Cuban descent and came looking for a branch of the Martinez family that was originally from the Canary Islands but settled in Cuba.  While Cuba had many Canary Islander immigrants in the 19th century, Spain had also encouraged a group of Canary Islanders (Isleños, in Spanish) to settle in St Augustine in 1757.  Like all the other Spanish citizens, these Isleños went to Cuba in 1763, and are identified in records of the emigration as belonging to the militia of the Familias Isleñas. 


While St. Augustine relied primarily on the professional enlisted soldiers for its defense, all men were assigned membership in militias.  The militias were based on broadly defined population groups:  “Vecinos Antiguos,” meaning the descendants of the original settlers; “Familias de Yndios,” meaning the Indian groups who were settled at the missions; “Familias Isleñas,” meaning the Canary Island immigrants, etc.  Was it possible that this couple’s Isleño ancestors had at one time been in St Augustine?  Armed with our information and a referral to the Cuban Genealogical Society in Miami, our visitors left to do more research.


But they were part of the group, some of us descendants and some not (such as docents Louise and Elizabeth, above in their 18th century dress), who gathered at Tolomato Cemetery to commemorate the lives and deaths of the many diverse people who founded and built our city and to join once again in the beautiful, age-old prayers.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Cuba, Martí, the US and Fr. Varela

Many of our Cuban visitors to the cemetery know that José Martí visited Tolomato Cemetery in 1892. José Martí is considered one of the liberators of Cuba, meaning one of the people who transformed it from a Spanish colony and then a US-occupied territory to an independent country. He never lived to see this, because he died in 1895 during a battle with Spanish forces in Cuba. Spain lost Cuba to the US in 1898, an event still referred to in Spain as “El Desastre del 98,” the end of the Spanish Empire.
Martí visited St. Augustine to pay his respects to Fr. Felix Varela, who at that time was still buried at Tolomato Cemetery.   Fr. Varela, in addition to the many things he did for the Irish in New York and his kindness to the people of St Augustine during his 3 brief years as a priest here, is considered one of the intellectual authors of Cuban independence.
St. Augustine always had a very close relationship with Cuba, and in fact was under the Cuban bishops of Santiago de Cuba and Havana for the first 200 years of its existence.  So Cuban-born Fr. Varela – educated in St. Augustine by the Spanish Irishman, Fr. Miguel O’Reilly – went back to Havana to go to seminary (St. Augustine was not a diocese and had no seminary at that time) and while there got involved in Cuban politics.  He was elected as a representative to the Spanish legislature, but unfortunately the Spanish system changed as he arrived and the absolute monarch, Ferdinand VII, came back into power, forcing him to flee.  But even during his 30 years in New York and Florida, he continued to write about Cuban politics and even published the first bilingual newsletter in the United States, devoted to this topic.
José Marti, whose statue is in Central Park in New York City, was born the same year (1853) that Fr. Varela died, and came to St Augustine to kneel at the foot of the crypt holding the remains of Fr. Varela.  Plans are in the works to commemorate his visit with a memorial plaque.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Mullet on the Ground

Sarah Miller of FPAN and her new assistant, Ryan Harke, came over to show off Tolomato to some visiting cemetery representatives from other parts of Florida. But in the midst of our tour, we came across the unlikely sight of a dead mullet lying on the pathway under one of the giant oak trees! The unfortunate fish was still glistening with water, and furthermore, it hadn’t been there only a few minutes earlier when Ryan had walked up to the chapel. We realized immediately that it had to be a sign of our semi-resident osprey at work; clearly, we had distracted him at his lunch and he had dropped his prize.  This adds a whole new risk to the cemetery, that of being struck by a falling fish, which Ryan narrowly avoided!

Mullet Fish

Tolomato Cemetery is full of wildlife, most of it birds living in the oak trees. There is a large hawk that frequently turns up perched on a vault, and we have seen owls and, of course, our osprey. Another wonderful thing that Tolomato provides to St Augustine: a habitat for wildlife right in the midst of the city. Alas, I’m afraid it’s not so good for the fish.


Sunday, August 25, 2013

Quik Clean and Stealth Opening

Since we didn’t open the cemetery last Saturday (a 3rd Saturday) because of horrible weather about an hour earlier, we decided to open yesterday.  This time, we combined preservation and historical tourism:  one group worked on cleaning or restoring different sites, while another group tended to the table at the entrance and welcomed visitors.

During the 2 hours we were open, we got about 75 visitors, all of them very happy to discover that the cemetery was open.  Tours were on an irregular, as-needed basis, but visitors also had more time to ask for an in-depth explanation of different aspects of the cemetery, and several of us spent more than 30 minutes each with different interested visitors.

Meanwhile, others labored as you see below, where Patti Kelbert (owner of Le Pavillon) takes a wire brush to one of the posts on the Hernandez enclosure.

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Missing are photos of Bob Kennedy, carefully weeding every square centimeter of the Benet enclosure; Mary Jane Ballou helping Priscilla de la Cruz clean out the dreaded area behind the chapel; Louise Kennedy leading people around; Nick McAuliffe and Janet Jordan and Bob taking the truck out to pick up crushed shell for covering the enclosures that Priscilla de la Cruz weeded (see below). But that all happened, and it was a really nice day for all.

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It was so much fun that we’ve decided that in the future, we’re going to combine preservation with interpretation, and we hope to get some people out to work on different things while others lead tours.  Or they can trade back and forth!

If you’re interested, get in touch (board@tolomatocemetery.com).

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Home Repairs

Everybody – the hardworking TCPA volunteers and docents in particular – will be very happy to know that we got the gate fixed up today.  Steve from Brock Fence came out and rehung it with new hardware, straightened the barbed wire and the chain link, put in a drop post so we can close half of it at a time, and in general made it a functioning gate again.  No more will it take three people to get the gate closed after our Open Day!

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Steve did a great job and this is going to be a big improvement.  We’re planning on replacing the entire gate, of course, but that’s a project that won’t happen overnight.  In the meantime, we’ll enjoy our “new” gate – which was probably first installed over 60 years ago, in the 1940s or 1950s.  So all things considered, it hasn’t done a bad job.

Below is the new drop bar and hook. This may not look very exciting, but if you’ve ever had to hold one half of the very heavy and crooked gate closed with your foot while attempting to capture the other part with the chain and padlock, you’ll appreciate how wonderful this is!

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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Preservation Madness!

We went wild at the cemetery this weekend! In the space of only 3 hours, a team of about 15 people restored a cast iron gate, cleaned innumerable markers, and stripped out all of the ugly, stone-destroying weeds that were threatening the health and well-being of the vaults and markers.

Below are some great photos taken by Nick McAuliffe:

Here we see  the Hernandez enclosure, missing the gate - which Matt Armstrong removed to make it easier to clean.


Nick discovered that the enclosure had a brick sill.

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Matt shows the group how to work on the gate, which was very rusted and had actually been face down in the grass for many years.


We brushed it with wire brushes and cleaned off all the flakes, as you see Matt, his parents and Patti Kelbert doing here.


Matt then sprayed it with Rust Reformer, which reverts the rust process and gives it a smooth surface again.


Next was the primer coat. All the paints are oil-based. It’s time consuming because there are so many nooks and crannies.  But many hands make light work, including my hand on the bottom, wearing the keychain.


Then we applied the black top coats, as we see Moses Stzylerman, in his suitable skeleton outfit, doing in this photo.

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Finally, we put it away to dry.  Rain was coming in, so we had to hurry. But we’ll hang it next week.

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Meanwhile, the other volunteers powered up and swept through the cemetery.  Here Priscilla cleans an enclosure, aided by Mary Jane, Janet and Moses.  Way in the background are two new volunteers, Sharla Fenchel and her daughter, going off to work on the mysterious tomb of “T.H.” at the very southeast corner of the cemetery.  It’s never too late to be a new volunteer!  You learn on the job.


Louise and Bob Kennedy removed lichens and aggressive plant-life throughout the cemetery.

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We close with a photo of Bob, managing to win the war (at least temporarily) on all of that ugly stuff that grows on top of the Sanchez vault.  Congratulations to everybody!  Way to go!


Monday, July 22, 2013

Legoland meets NOLA

The tireless Nick McAuliffe, TCPA Vice President, was in San Diego to visit his grandchildren a couple of weeks ago.  He and his wife, Cynthia, took the kids on the obligatory visit to Legoland, which is just north of San Diego, and found that it was displaying Lego models of several important cities, among them, New Orleans.

And with his unerring sense for finding cemeteries, lo and behold, he found the famous St. Louis Cemetery #1, Lego version, in an appropriate place in the miniature French Quarter of the Lego NOLA.  It even appears to feature a funeral procession heading down the street!


Nick relates that he checked the Paris reconstruction for signs of the Pere Lachaise Cemetery, but had no luck...

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Preservation at the Continental Divide

I'm in New Mexico right now, near the Continental Divide and far away from St Augustine and Tolomato. But never really far away - I was thinking about our upcoming preservation work day (July 27, lest you forget!) and about the cleaning of the headstones and inscriptions in particular.

These are always hard to manage. If you clean them too much, the inscriptions become illegible. If you scrub the too hard, they wear away. And if you don't do anything, lichens  and acid from tree run-off attack the stone and they flake off or the stone degrades and they disappear.

But our problems are nothing compared to El Morro National Monument, where they have inscriptions (in this case, "historic graffiti") dating back to 1605, from the time of the first Spanish expeditions through the Southwest.  Inscriptions continued during the following US period and both were frequently engraved next to pre-European petroglyphs left much earlier by the various Indian groups (the Pueblos and the Zuni).

"Morro" is the Spanish word for headlands or bluff (or the snout of an animal!), and describes this magnificent sandstone crag that rises 800 feet above the already nearly 8000 foot altitude of these mountains, not far from Gallup.  At the foot of the cliff is a pool of fresh water, run-off from the snows and rains of this area, which has apparently always attracted human beings in this barren, harsh environment. At the top of the crag was a pueblo, nearly inaccessible from below and thus secure, with residents descending from the peak to bring up water. After the time of the Indians, Spanish expeditions and then later US pioneers and military expeditions also stopped here.  Below are some Indians carvings, also known as petroglyphs.

All the different passers-by left their marks.  Juan de Oñate, explorer of the Southwest and the Pacific coast, left the first European inscription in 1605 as he returned from his search for  the "South Sea" (he reached the Gulf of California and the Pacific).  The inscription is below and records these facts in his own hand.  And behind him came many soldiers, friars, governors, and even the occasional bishop, all of whom stopped to inscribe their dates, their names and their missions.  I was particularly struck by the fact that many of them even engraved their "rubrica," that is, the distinctive flourish that Spaniards still use to authenticate the document as their own.  

To give you a sense of scale, in the photo below, I am pointing at the Oñate inscription and the petroglyph shown above.

When the US took over New Mexico as a territory in1847, US expeditions - either to fight or make treaties with the Indians - made their way last this point. In 1849, LT. J. H. Simpson and a military artist, R.H. Kern, returning from making a treaty with the Navajos, took it upon themselves to transcribe all the Spanish inscriptions.  Their record of their work, which they engraved on the north wall, is the first in English. It also contains a spelling error - "insciption" instead of "inscription," but stone is unforgiving and  at that point, correcting it would have been more trouble than it was worth.

Carving on the wall was halted in1906 when the National Parks system was established, and following that, various attempts were made to preserve or even improve the readability of the original graffiti. The reason that Oñate's words stand out so much is that in the 1920s, some of the older inscriptions were darkened with graphite (that would be a #2 pencil) and later some were filled with other substances. But in 1924, attempts were made to clean off some off the more modern inscriptions, considered of no historic value, by rubbing them out with a piece of sandstone. Unfortunately, some of the important inscriptions were erased,too, among them that left by the famous Archbishop Lamy, the subject of Willa Cather's work, Death Comes For the Archbishop

Currently, preservation consists mainly of protection. There's really no way to preserve a perishable material like stone forever. The fact that these have endured for 400 or more years is something to be grateful for, particularly now that we have the technology to record them and to recover earlier descriptions of them. And maybe that's really all that can be done, particularly because there are many things beyond our control in an outdoor environment, such as a cliff face - or a cemetery.  

In fact, I was not even able to see all of the inscriptions because just a few hours before my visit, a rock fall had closed part of the pathway and the rangers were still evaluating the damage done to the graffiti. There hadn't been a rockfall there for decades, but that is certainly no guarantee that it will never happen, and another rockfall was inevitable. And so are more in the future, some of which will no doubt damage or destroy these inscriptions.

Preservation is all important - but sometimes this doesn't mean preserving the actual item (which is it always possible or even never possible) but instead an accurate record, particularly now with the great techniques we have for doing this.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Preservation Day Coming Up July 27!

We’re getting ready for a nice, hard-working morning of preservation tasks on July 27 (9 a.m.-12 noon, hopefully before it gets too hot to work!).  We’re planning on tackling the metalwork again, this time on one of the prettiest features of the cemetery:  the gate to the Mary Hernandez enclosure, which features two lambs resting under a weeping willow tree.


Lambs and weeping willows appear frequently in 19th century cemetery art. There appear to be two birds, probably doves, in this gate as well, and doves were also a frequent feature.


As you can see, the metal is covered with rust and has gotten pitted.  But we can fix that! 

Below you see a piece of the metalwork on the Benet-Baya enclosure. It’s in an unrestored state:  pitted and covered with rust and concretions of rust.


Here’s an identical piece on another part of the enclosure, after careful wire-brushing, brushing, sealing with a rust reverser, and several coats of primer and paint:


It’s a time-consuming process, but the results are great and the treated pieces will be preserved for many years.  So come out on and join us on July 27 when we work on the Hernandez gate.  We also plan to rehang the gate, which as you have probably noticed, is simply propped in place on the ground.

No experience necessary!  We provide the materials, although you might want to bring your own work gloves and eye-protection.