Sunday, December 28, 2014

A New Year for Two Old Cemeteries

The Colonial Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia boasts this impressive entrance, constructed by the DAR, showing you that at one time, the Colonial Cemetery was "the" place to be buried in Savannah. The cemetery opened in 1750, still the British Colonial period in Savannah, and closed in 1853. The latter date coincided with a yellow fever outbreak, so it was probably closed for the same reason that Tolomato Cemetery was closed, in other words, because of fears the cemeteries had something to do with the spread of yellow fever. They didn't, of course, but nobody knew that the spread of the disease was connected with mosquitoes and standing water until Dr. Walter Reed's research in 1905.  So it was not uncommon in Southern cities to close the cemetery as a preventive measure.

Many of the burials are those of important colonial or Revolutionary War figures. The cemetery was restored by the Garden Club in the 1970s, and is well-maintained by the city and volunteer groups. The cemetery is some six acres in size and there are about 9000 graves, although as you can see, there's lots of open space. This is because many earlier grave markers have fallen over or have been removed because they were about to topple over.  But I suspect that the now open field was a forest of markers in its day.

On the wall above, you see rows of markers that have been picked up and placed against the wall after they cracked at the base.

There were other solutions to the problem of broken markers, such as setting the remaining fragment of the marker into a concrete base or a thick upright plaque of concrete. I also saw some more modern solutions. Several of the markers had steel frames built around them, as you see in the photo below.   While a little unattractive, in my opinion, the frame does support the marker and keeps it not only in one piece, but upright.

Many of the markers had very touching descriptions, and some even had rather dramatic inscriptions. The inscription of Joseph Vallence Bevan (d. 1830), Georgia's first official state historian, reads "There Was None, No None! Against Whose Name The Recording Angel Would More Reluctantly Have Written Down Condemnation."  Below is his ledger stone, which, as you can see, needs a little D-2 cleaner and preservation team scrubbing! 

There were many attractive ironwork features around and in the cemetery as well. Savannah has a long ironwork tradition, similar to that of New Orleans or other 18th and 19th century American cities. St. Augustine, had it had the money, would probably have featured ironwork too, since the Spanish were known for their ironwork.   As it is, there is a fair amount of iron work in St. Augustine, although most of it is from the late 19th century onwards. The style in  Savannah was the English style, although there was a French influence, too.  St. Augustine ironwork is a combination of just about everything, although it is being overtaken by the rather neutral and functional modern aluminum fencing.  This not very good photo shows you the decorative curlicues and embellishments on the Colonial Cemetery fence (if you look hard enough).

Colonial Cemetery, like Tolomato, stands as a peaceful, fenced island in the midst of a thronged, tourist filled city.  It has been a city park since 1896, but the cemetery has been on this site for some 264 years. Tolomato, first as a Franciscan mission and then as the cemetery, has been on its site for somewhat longer than that, probably more than 300 years.  Visitors can contemplate these tranquil places as another busy year comes rolling in, and we wish a happy 2015 - and many years thereafter - to all! 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Last 3rd Saturday of 2014


It’s the last 3rd Saturday of the year, Christmas is almost here, and once again we have decorated Tolomato for the season. We hung wreaths on the Varela Chapel last week, no easy task, since the columns in front are coquina faced with concrete, meaning that the traditional nail or hook is out. Last year we used fishing line looped around the top of the capitals, which fortunately are flat and have a ledge around the top – so we tried it again. 


Still, it took three of us (Elizabeth, Matt and Janet, the latter of whom are in the photo), juggling the wreaths, tying the nearly invisible line…and then trying to get the wreaths winched up to the same height on both columns. But we did it!


We also placed poinsettias at a few of the more notable tombs, such as those of Bishop Verot and Fr. Miguel O’Reilly, and also in front of the sign honoring the many Minorcans buried at Tolomato.


This Saturday, December 20, is a third Saturday, so we’ll be open as usual and you can come and see these things for yourself. And feel free to bring along another poinsettia or two if there is any grave in particular that you wish to mark.


Another seasonal but less inspiring thing to keep in mind is that this is nearly the end of the 2014 tax year! This mundane consideration should make you wonder what Christmas gift you could give that might be tax-deductible, and of course, the Tolomato Fence would be a perfect recipient for such a gift. You can visit our website, , to make a donation, or if you wish to make a large donation contact us by email at to arrange it. Securities and all other forms in which you wish to donate are accepted, along, of course, with good old checks.

But whether you donate or not, consider stopping by to visit on Saturday from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm. Our “chapel harpist,” Mary Jane Ballou, will be playing carols, and Matt Armstrong will be lending his voice (and his guitar) to the festivities. Of course, there will be the usual tours and information…and there might even be homemade cookies for a few fortunate visitors! 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Pre-Holiday Clean Up and Cuban Doings at Tolomato

Saturday was a busy day! The usual wonderful group from the Flagler College Archaeology Club came out and got the prize: they cleaned more markers in one morning than any other group!  With their president, Elizabeth Valnoha, they cleaned a total of 8 markers.


TCPA Preservation Committee Co-Chair Ray Hinkley, who has worked in historic cemeteries in New York, was there to show them the ropes. Ray and Archaeology Club President Elizabeth Valnoha started by probing the area, because there had been some discussion of straightening  one of the markers. But since the probes revealed that the marker probably has a large concrete base under it, which requires more people and possibly even machinery, we decided that it would be better just to clean the markers and plan a special day – with outside assistance – for straightening them.

Mayne Marker

The marker above is that of the Irish-born Fr. Edward Mayne, who arrived in St Augustine in 1827 and died in 1834, probably of tuberculosis, after a few very stressful years as the parish priest of the parish that is now the Cathedral Parish (it didn’t become a cathedral until 1870, when St Augustine got its first bishop).


The club members – as seen below, Allison Struck, Andrea Broaderick, Shelby Schultz and Elizabeth Valnoha, with TCPA members Janet Jordan and Ray Hinkley standing behind them. – began work on it, and below we see the cleaned marker, which is legible again. The lichen and stains have been removed…but they’ll be back, alas.  This marker was cleaned only a few years ago, and had already become illegible when we started to work on it. In the photo, it’s still damp, but it will lighten, become more uniform, and the lichen will fade as it dries.

Mayne After Cleaning

We cleaned several early markers – 1820s and 1830s – and a number of mid-19th century markers, including a marker for Jane Masters, a matriarch of the important local Masters family, which we hadn’t been able to read before.  It’s located at the east end, over the “door” of a ruined vault, and it turned out to have a long poem at its base.


Janet Jordan, TCPA treasurer, took a break from her books to clean markers. This marker belongs to Margaret Weir, who died in 1869 and was the widow of Samuel Weir; the marker was placed by her son.


Just as we were finishing our cleaning, it started to rain….so we fled. But a small group of us came back a couple of hours later to welcome Jesus Permuy from Miami, along with members of two Cuban exile groups, one devoted to Fr. Felix Varela, and one that represents various Cuban municipalities,  They came to install a plaque in the form of a book, in Spanish on one side and English on the other, dedicated to the visit made in 1892 by Jose Marti to the chapel/mausoleum to honor Fr. Varela.  


But more about that next time…Happy Thanksgiving, dear readers!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Le Puy Connection

Le Puy-en-Velay is a small city in the area of France known as the Haute-Loire, and used to be known for its lace making, although now its main industry seems to be tourism.  People come to Le Puy to start on the Camino de Santiago, which goes 763 kilometers to the Spanish border, or to ski or do some other strenuous outdoor activity in the surrounding mountains – or just to see this pretty town with its three famous volcanic peaks.  In fact, the word “puy” is an old French word meaning “peak,” and these three dramatic, narrow spikes (which are the necks of volcanoes, exposed by erosion) have been famous for millenia.  Nowadays, each one bears a religious shrine of some sort: the large red statue of Notre Dame de France on one, a very ancient shrine to the Archangel Michael on another, and the Cathedral on the third. I was in Le Puy in October, and I took this photo looking through the main door of the Cathedral, through which pilgrims entered, over the town of Le Puy as it rises up the sides of the peak.


And here we see one of the peaks viewed from another peak. The large statue of Notre Dame de France, erected in the mid 19th century, can be seen from the steps of the 10th century chapel of St Michael, Chapelle Saint Michel d'Aiguilhe.  The latter word means "needle" or "peak." In the photo, tired tourists are puffing up the stairs after climbing the 620 steps to the chapel.


Fortunately, they can rely upon getting a wonderful dish of tiny lentils in some café when they descend, since lentils are another one of Le Puy’s special things, so special they even have their own “denomination of origin,” like a fine wine.  Or they could stop and buy a little bobbin lace, made with the bobbins and pillow such as those set out below in the local lace-making museum.


But what is the St Augustine connection?  And the Tolomato connection?

It begins with Bishop Augustin Verot, who was born in Le Puy in 1804, and ended his days in 1876 as the first bishop of St Augustine.  Just ten years before that, he had returned to Le Puy to bring a group of women religious, the Sisters of St Joseph, back to St Augustine with him to teach the children of the recently emancipated African Americans of the town.   Eight sisters accompanied him, barely able to speak English and having little more than good will and courage, and established their first little community and school in St Augustine in 1866, living and teaching in the house that had once belonged to Fr. Miguel O’Reilly on what is now Aviles Street.  Over the decades, they became a large order, teaching all over the state and working in hospitals, and now everyone in town knows their beautiful motherhouse on St George Street, which was designed by one of the sisters.


The order had been founded in the 17th century in Le Puy and was intended to be made up of small communities of devout women who lived together and served the poor in whatever way was necessary.  They supported themselves through donations and lace making, just as St Augustine’s sisters would do centuries later.  It was a successful model and had many members in the area, although like all religious orders in France, it suffered greatly in the aftermath of the French Revolution, when religious orders were dissolved and both priests and religious women were expected to sign an oath of subjection to the State.  The sisters were dispersed from their community, and in fact, several of them in Le Puy and Lyon were executed by the revolutionary authorities, either for refusing to take the oath or for sheltering priests who had refused to take the oath.  The peaceful tree below, with its plaque commemorating Le Puy’s war dead from the various World Wars and conflicts, marks the spot where the guillotine stood and where two of the sisters from Le Puy were beheaded in 1793.  The site faces the City Hall, where officials used to sit to watch the executions.


The order was slowly reestablished after French life returned more or less to normal after the Revolution, and by the time Bishop Verot went back to Le Puy, he was able to get 60 volunteers who wished to go to Florida.  He took only 8, and of those original 8 French sisters, two are buried at Tolomato Cemetery. The others died after Tolomato closed in 1884, and are buried either at Mission Nombre de Dios or at San Lorenzo.  The marker below commemorates both of the sisters buried at Tolomato.

SSJ Marker-1

Walking around town, I came across a burial vault for some of the many Sisters of St Joseph (Religieuses de Saint Joseph) who did not go to Florida.  This large vault is one of three in the North Cemetery in Le Puy, which is closed, with the latest burials being in 2006. New interments take place at a new cemetery in the flat lands on the other side of the river that circles the peaks.  Family members have added the individual commemorative plaques and crucifixes and photographs. 


Notice the crucifixes lined up on the top of the vault, something that we saw on other tombs, too.  This seems to be a custom in this part of France, because all of the vaults and graves bore small – or sometimes large - plaques with personal inscriptions and sometimes a photo of the deceased.  It was a Sunday afternoon, and people were in the cemetery weeding, tending their family graves, and cleaning the plaques.


Visible from this hilly cemetery was one of the other peaks, the peak where the St Michael Chapel is located, watching over the town as it has done for over a thousand years.


I imagine that those 8 French sisters who set out for the unseen land of Florida, almost 150 years ago, took one final look at the beautiful peaks of their city and then prayed that St Michael would watch over them on this journey – a very successful one, it turned out – into the unknown.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Weeds, Weeds and More Weeds

This innocent looking little plant below is actually one of the worst enemies of that sturdy looking brick and mortar on which it has installed itself.  The tiny roots push their way into tiny cracks – and then start getting bigger and bigger and going deeper, until the crack itself begins to widen.  Years of untended weed growth can contribute to the eventual collapse of even the biggest and most solid looking of vaults.


Here we see a beautiful maidenhair fern that has taken up residence in a crack -  which is rapidly filling up with ferns and being pushed apart as the plant spreads out and gets comfortable.


The brick vaults at Tolomato are particularly susceptible to weed attacks, since the mortar used is generally a basic lime mortar and not even as sturdy as the more modern, water-resistant Portland cement type of mortar. Rain and weather conditions weaken the mortar, and then a plant seed is fortunate enough to find a home in some little opening…and the process begins.


There are other kinds of plant life that can damage stone.  Above we see the stone of Father Edward Mayne, a parish priest of what is now the Cathedral, who died in 1833 after serving only a few years in St Augustine. Covering it is a mixture of moss and lichen, topped by a stray strand of Spanish moss.  (Yes, we will straighten it one of these days, but it’s going to be a big project.)


In this close up,we can see how the lichen virtually covers the surface; this is called “colonizing.” Disregard the Spanish moss, because it’s harmless. It’s a member of the bromeliad family, has no roots and is an epiphyte, a type of plant that it gets its nourishment from rain and air. On the other hand, the lichens can be destructive to inscriptions and surfaces, because they excrete acids that penetrate into the stone’s surface, possibly to aid in attaching themselves. These acids penetrate between the grains of the rock itself and speed weathering.

When we clean stones at the cemetery, we use an anti-biological, such as D2, which supposedly slows the regrowth of lichens and moss.  But they always come back, as we see happening with this stone, which was cleaned only about a year ago.


And then there are the really, really big weeds:  Self-seeded trees.  During the times when the cemetery was somewhat neglected, these trees saw their opportunity and took root. Most of the existing trees in the cemetery are probably self-seeded, but only a few of them present a problem, such as the one we see below. This tree is a hackberry tree, which commonly seeds itself in vacant lots or other untended spaces here in Florida.  As we can see, it grew up on the side of this cast iron grave enclosure…and ended up absorbing one of the posts in its growth. As it grew, it lifted the iron fence up and is still carrying it ever upwards as it grows.


In this close up, we can see how the iron post is embedded in the tree. The solution in cases like this is often that of cutting the metal piece off and letting the tree have the section that it has engulfed, so that it doesn’t rip up the entire enclosure. In this case, however, the tree will have to be removed when the new fence is put in, so it will be cut above the top of the fence post and at its base, and then the remaining piece of trunk will be allowed to decay off over the years.


Keeping the plant world at bay is a constant struggle at Tolomato Cemetery.  In fact, when we’re open this coming weekend, October 18, one of our projects will be – you guessed it – weeding the vaults.  Weeding isn’t a very glamorous preservation task, but it is essential, and with Florida’s plant-friendly, humid, hot climate, it’s something that needs to be done constantly.  So bring your gardening gloves the next time you visit the cemetery!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Report from Havana.

Tolomato Cemetery was open this weekend for our special Fence Fund kick-off…but more on that later.


We had an unexpected visit from a couple, Gladys and Lázaro Prieto (above), just back from Havana. They had visited us a few years ago, and had promised to bring back photos of Fr. Varela’s burial place the next time they visited family in Havana.  And they were as good as their word - here are the photos they brought us on this weekend.


Above is the grand entrance of the University of Havana, and below is a small courtyard at the university that features a beautiful marble bust and memorial plaque in honor of Fr. Varela.  He is wearing what is probably an academic gown of the early 19th century, when he was a brilliant teacher at San Carlos Seminary, which eventually became the University of Havana.

Varela Cuba1

The bust is quite large, as we can see from the photo below that shows the Prietos standing next to it and in front of the plaque.


Following is a close-up of the plaque.  A translation of the the Spanish text reads, “The youth to whom I once devoted my efforts keeps me in its memory and they tell me that the new generation is not indifferent to my name. Felix Varela.  TO THE PATRIOT, TIRELESS EDUCATOR, PRIEST AND FAMOUS PHILOSOPHER, SEED OF OUR NATIONALITY, FELIX VARELA Y MORALES, FROM THE CUBAN REVOLUTIONARY STUDENT YOUTH.”


Below is the Aula Magna, the Great Hall, where Fr. Varela’s remains are kept in an urn.  The Prietos tried to get into the hall, which is used as a formal reception area for welcoming dignitaries and holding official functions, but unfortunately they weren’t allowed in – this time, although they hope to have more success in the future.  But even these views of the Varela monument remind us of St Augustine’s close connections with Havana, and Fr. Varela’s position as a link between the two cities.  Many thanks to Gladys and Lázaro Prieto for bringing us these great photos!

Aula Cuba

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Hate the Gate?

Now that the blazing heat of summer is over (we hope!), it’s time for some tranquil fall Open Days at Tolomato Cemetery.  But the kick-off for the fall season will be a little different this year.

Have you ever walked along Cordova Street and wondered why beautiful, serene Tolomato Cemetery is caged behind a chain link and barbed wire fence?  Have you ever thought how much you hate that sagging gate that prevents you from taking a photograph of the stately trees and classic chapel? That’s going to change!


About a year ago, architect Don Crichlow drew up plans for the restoration of the early 20th century concrete wall and complete replacement of the fence and gate that have surrounded Tolomato Cemetery since the 1940s. In between the labors of restoring the Varela Chapel crypt and floor, TCPA members spent time getting bids from fencing companies and considering design solutions.


The new fence plans are finally ready to be unveiled to the public, and our next Open Day, Saturday, September 20, will be the big day.  We’ll be open from 11 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., as usual, and of course, everything will be free, as usual.  But it’s going to be special!


Visitors can have our regular tours and a chance to see the restoration work that was done in the Varela Chapel, but we’ll also have live music, refreshments, a silk-screener producing special Tolomato items, and presentations on the fence and the history of the fences and walls at Tolomato Cemetery.  Naturally, the centerpiece will be the rendering of the new fence and gate, which we hope to complete by next summer.


As you can see from the late 19th century photo above, the fence has looked even worse at times.  But after all these years, we want it to finally be as lovely as the rest of the cemetery - and to be something that makes St Augustine even more beautiful!  Come on September 20th and see for yourself.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Restored at last!

Today was an exciting day at Tolomato Cemetery. Janet Jordan and I went out to await the arrival of the restored stone that had covered the crypt in the Varela Chapel and has been off for restoration for several weeks (during which time the entire floor was retiled). Carl Halbirt, the City Archaeologist, came along to lend encouragement and get the first public viewing!

Marble Masters of Jacksonville, a wonderful, craftsman company, brought the stone back today and set it over the crypt in a matching marble “crib.”  They were able to remove most of the staining from it and gave it a low buff so that the beautiful stone and the lovely lettering of the inscription are shown to their greatest effect. They also installed new rings, made by an artisan in Georgia. Here they are moving it into the chapel…


And here it is, installed.


Below is the photo of the original 1854-55 installation. Fr. Varela died in early 1853, but it took several months to build the chapel and several months more for the Cuban builders to get the altar and the stone – probably Cuban marble – and the other decorative elements.  Fr. Varela was finally removed from his original burial place in the cemetery and reburied in the completed chapel in 1855.

Varela Stone 1854-1

The above photo is from a book printed in Cuba in 1924, and is not extremely clear. But you can et the general idea and you can see how close the new stone is to the old one and what a beautiful job this company did on recreating it from this photo.  More later on marble, restoration, and various other things. But for now, enjoy the stone – and come out to see it for yourself when you’re next in St Augustine.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Phase 1 is done!

The slow and multi-phased process of restoring the floor and the stone in the Varela Chapel has gotten one step closer to completion.


Here you see the old mahogany altar on the new travertine floor.  The original floor was this color and its builders referred to it as “coquina,” although it was probably a type of tabby, that is, blocks made out of concrete or mortar and crushed coquina. This type of block is now used mostly for outside paving, but it was used for flooring for buildings of this type in St Augustine. It was referred to as a terraplen floor, or earth-filled floor, and in this case it is set on a bed of sand.  When it used inside, it could be softened with a carpet or rugs, and the contemporary accounts tell us that there was a “rich carpet” in the chapel to cover this surface.


The next step is replacing the crypt stone, which is still off for its restoration treatment.  But in the meantime, you can see how much lighter and brighter the travertine – beautifully set by tile setter Joe Roddy, above, in what is called the “French pattern” of different size tiles – has made this space. Better yet, come and see it yourself, since we’ll be open this Saturday, July 19.