Friday, March 21, 2014

Yet Another Tolomato Connection Found.

Just in time for the St Patrick’s season, we have an interesting glimpse of the Irish life of Fr. Felix Varela, for whom the Varela Chapel at Tolomato was built. He was St. Augustine's Cuban-born local son, a brilliant philosopher and scholar who grew up here speaking Spanish and English, was ordained in Cuba and expected to spend his life in Cuba or Spain. But by those mysterious crooked lines of God, he spent his priestly career working among impoverished Irish immigrants in New York from the 1820s to 1850. He even learned Gaelic to work with them, and his church in New York, St James parish, was the founding place of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in 1833.


The photo above shows you the St James Church school...and the street sign commemorating the Ancient Order of Hibernians, originally a protective group founded in response to mob attacks on Catholics and the burning of old St Mary's church in 1831.  Below, we see the church, with the kids from the school across the street having recess in front of it.


St James Church is temporarily closed because of water damage that occurred during New York's harsh winter this year, but on a recent trip to NYC, I was fortunate enough to meet a parishioner and the parish priest, who invited me to view the building. But that will be the subject of another post.


In the meantime, I found another great connection. The cemetery above is all that remains of the old Shearith Israel Spanish and Portuguese Jewish Cemetery. It was opened in 1683, succeeding an earlier Jewish cemetery whose location has been lost. At that time it was outside the walls of the original Dutch city at the lower tip of Manhattan. It continued to receive burials until 1833. The cemetery is located about two or three 19th/20th century tenement buildings behind St James Church. Bernard Baruch, the famous NYC financier and philanthropist, paid for its restoration in the 1960s, and you can read more about it if you click right here.


Around the corner, Fr. Varela founded St. James Church in 1827, originally calling it the “Church of the Immigrants.” But the name was changed to St James by 1836, the year in which he built the current building. St James, aka Santiago, is the patron saint of Spain, and this may have influenced the name change. In any case, enough money was raised to build a large church - on the foundation of an old brewery - that was possibly designed by Minard Lafever, an important early master builder/architect. The area includes the cemetery and the church and a tiny park known as St James Triangle. When you look at the photo of St James Church above, notice the similarity to the fa├žade of the Varela Chapel at Tolomato.  This was probably in the mind of the Cubans who commissioned the Varela Chapel in Tolomato Cemetery.


Saturday, March 15, 2014

A Great Day for Great People!

Here are our Tolomato Docents posing after a record day. We had 611 visitors today!  The TCPA crew was exhausted by the time 3:00 pm rolled around, but really happy to have had so many wonderful, interested visitors. 

Here we see (l-r) great tour leader Brooke Radaker, warm greeter Priscilla de la Cruz, fearless leader Patty Kelbert, happy chapel harpist Mary Jane Ballou, the dynamic Ray Hinkley (with the fingers) and the scholarly and ever-informative Matt Armstrong.  Lin Masley and Norm Merski were also there most of the day to lend a hand but didn’t make it for the photo-op, so you’ll just have to imagine them.


A wonderful, wonderful day!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Meanwhile, from Mexico…

While Tolomato Cemetery had served as an Indian mission in St. Augustine’s First Spanish Period (1565-1763), and probably did have burials in or around the chapel that was located there, no visible evidence of these burials remains.

We don’t have anything like this, for example…


Or even this…the text of which starts “Under this stone…”


These were in, respectively, the cemetery and the churchyard of the parish church of Santiago Tejupan in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, where I recently spent a few days touring various historic (and often remote) churches in the area.

This beautiful church was built by Dominican missionaries in the 16th century, and is still in use as the parish church of this small town.  Burials used to be in the churchyard directly in front of the church, but in the 1850s, when Mexico underwent a period of great and sometimes disruptive change known as the Reform, the order went out from Mexico City that cemeteries could no longer be under the control of churches but had to be located elsewhere. In this case, the parishioners just moved it to the outside of the old fence of the churchyard, so it’s still accessible from the church.  However, the old burials were left in place.  And they are very old indeed.


Above you see the happy visitors (mostly organists touring the historic organs still contained in these churches) taking photos – from the midst of the old churchyard cemetery.