Friday, October 21, 2016

Tolomato Meets Hurricane Matthew

How fast things can change!  Two weeks ago, Armstrong Fencing loaded up its truck with the old chain link and barbed wire Tolomato fence and rode off into the sunset, after having completed the installation of a beautiful, stately looking new fence all around the back and sides of the cemetery.

And only three days later, Hurricane Matthew hit - and part of that brand-new fence was destroyed, ironically, by a tree we had saved on the north side of the cemetery.  Its roots weakened by all of the water in the ground, the tree - top heavy from sucking up thousands of gallons of water during the flood - was shoved over by the wind, broke through the fence, and fell against two other trees in front of it. They in turn fell against the roof of the Oliveros-Papy vault, as you can see below.

But before going into more disaster details, let's focus on the positive. As I mentioned, we completed the fencing, including the back and sides, which we didn't expect to get done until many years from now.  But only a couple of months after the completion of the front fence and gate in April, we received two very generous donations that would enable us to finish the back and side fencing. Again, with more serendipity and information from a friend of Tolomato who walks by the cemetery every day and knew we were looking for a fence company interested in this job, we found Armstrong Fencing, a Jacksonville company that had already worked on the neighboring school board buildings (formerly Ketterlinus School).

This gave us enough money to complete a couple of other jobs. Local mason Rick Hernandez, who has ancestors buried in the cemetery, had just finished work on rebuilding a partially collapsed vault and restoring the De Mier tomb, and he came back to give us a beautiful new coquina concrete entryway in front of the new gate.  No more standing in a puddle of water to get into Tolomato! 

Speaking of water, he finished this job just three days before Matthew struck.  Fortunately, the cement was hardened and wasn't affected.

But a lot had happened before that, too. We went through the city's permitting process after having already voluntarily done the HARB  (Historic Architecture Review Board) process and arranging for the archaeological monitoring to be conducted on the places where the 101(!) postholes were dug.  Nothing unexpected was found, although it does appear that most of the burials must have been a few feet in from the modern boundaries of the site.

Then we had an arborist come and evaluate the trees along the side and back, since several of them were too close to the wall or another structure to permit the fence to be placed behind them, and would have to be removed or boxed.  We received permits from the city to remove those that could or should be removed - that is, they were already damaged - and at the suggestion of Armstrong, built box-outs for eleven trees that couldn't be removed or simply looked nice even in their somewhat   inconvenient locations.

But trees can be a problem in an historic cemetery. If there has been a period of neglect, they revert to the wild.  A "volunteer" tree can grow around and "swallow" a feature, such as an iron enclosure post or even a marker. As the tree grows, it ends up dragging the feature out of the ground.

But we solved all those problems - Eddie from Tree Medic carefully carved back the offending tree, in this case, a hackleberry that had swallowed the large post of a grave enclosure. Cutting anywhere near a tree with embedded metal is very dangerous, so he had to do much of it by hand - but rescued   the enclosure post, leaving only a small piece of wood that will fall or can be chipped off. Restoration on that beautiful enclosure (we don't know the names of the "residents") will begin next year.

After some 6 days of work and monitoring, we ended up with a beautiful fence, which ties in with the existing fencing on the front but is unobtrusive while at the same time giving the cemetery a great, almost formal dignity.

And then...Hurricane Matthew struck.

St Augustine was much more devastated than the rest of the country seems to realize, partly because we have a "keep your chin up" tradition here, since it has been devastated many times in its long history, sometimes by its enemies and sometimes by natural forces.  However, as we review the damage, and see the houses with all of their former occupants' sodden and mildewing possessions piled outside, see the demolition crews tearing out whole floors of houses, or even see people who have lost their homes altogether, we realize that this wasn't just Florida weather business as usual.

So at the cemetery, compared to other parts of town, we have little to complain about.  We lost several trees - such as the cedar tree below - and large limbs,  and part of the new fence.

 Now a possibly semi-uprooted or perhaps just water-swollen neighboring tree is pressing against and shattering the restored front wall. We'll deal with that.

We lost one marker, but it was pretty fragile anyway. Interestingly, the volume of water in the cemetery - according to the neighbors and the high-water marks on the wall of the flooded Varela Chapel, it was about 3 feet deep - made some of the older burials collapse a bit and we suddenly saw the indentations for "lost" graves and some slightly raised and solid areas that may possibly be markers that fell over decades ago and can now be retrieved. So we'll try to bring some good out of it!

The cemetery is getting back to shape as fast as possible. Paul the painter came and sealed and painted the raw concrete wall, and landscaper Paolo and the crew came in and did a clean up, aided by the Cathedral maintenance staff.  Then Tree Medic came and started working on the huge downed trees. We're keeping an eye on the big oaks, which lost a couple of limbs but are still standing, because the water that flooded the cemetery was salt water, which is no friend of oak trees. Keep your fingers crossed that the oaks don't start dying.

Our worst loss was probably what you see below, Louise Kennedy's carefully maintained genealogical and historical records, which were submerged under three feet of water in the storage shed where they were kept.  She is trying to salvage what she can and replace the information when she can find its source, but these notebooks were the work of many years and will be hard to rebuild.  But this did give us a new priority, namely that of finding better "office space" than a plastic storage shed. 

We had to cancel the Open Day because it was too wet and dangerous to enter the cemetery, and we also had to cancel a Florida Living History event that we were planning for the end of October. Many people - volunteers, reenactors, etc. - in St Augustine had their lives disrupted to the point that they wouldn't have been able to come, and some of the hotels and motels along the bay front and on Anastasia Island were flooded and damaged. But others are open and in fact some new ones were just about to open and are undamaged. And TCPA volunteers are going to do a cemetery clean-up this Saturday and it will be almost like new - or old - when we're done with it.  So if you were planning to visit St. Augustine and Tolomato, don't give up! You can find hotel space, and we at Tolomato Cemetery plan to be open in November (November 19, specifically).

So we'll be back in business soon. And we were thrilled to see this photo in the local First Coast Magazine:

Above a somewhat elegiac caption is the Varela Chapel seen through Scott Thompson's beautiful gate. The photo was taken about a month before Matthew hit. But everything will be fine before too long and once again, Tolomato Cemetery will be the photographer's dream and the beautiful, restful space it was meant to be.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Summer Tour: San Atilano in Zamora

It's summer and once again time for the cemetery vacation tour! This time I’m in Zamora, Spain, as an Hospitalera (a volunteer who takes care of the pilgrims) at a pilgrim hostel on this particular route (La Via de la Plata ) of the Camino de Santiago.

 Zamora is in Castilla y Leon, in the north-central part of the country. It's a grain growing, wine producing and sheep herding area, very hot and dry in the summer and bitterly cold and windy in the winter. The Duero, a wide and beautiful but shallow and mostly unnavigable river, runs along the base of the cliff upon which Zamora, like all the defensive towns of Castilla y Leon, is situated, keeping lookout over the plains and fields. 

 The Camino de Santiago is the ancient pilgrim route to the tomb of the Apostle St James (Iago is a form of James, hence, Santiago) in Compostela, the Field of Stars, in Galicia on the Atlantic Coast of Spain. The Via de la Plata, which for you Spanish students, doesn't refer to silver, but rather to a corruption of the Latin word for paved road, follows the old Roman road from Sevilla to the north. Pilgrims now take it to join the various other routes that all lead to Santiago de Compostela. 

 But enough of all that! Back to cemeteries! Such as the local Zamora cemetery, San Atilano, whose magnificent gate is shown below.

 In preparation for my visit, I did some web research, and found some excellent articles that had appeared in the local press a few years ago. If you read Spanish or want to rely on an automatic translation, here’s the link: The author is Isauro Perez Raton.

I found out that, like everywhere else in Europe, Zamora had been subject to frequent outbreaks of diseases such as yellow fever (mosquito borne) and cholera, a water borne disease. In the early Middle Ages, people were not sure what caused these illnesses, although there was some (accurate) suspicion that contaminated water had something to do with it. Efforts were made to halt burials under church floors or in the churchyards in towns, but this was piecemeal. It was not until a particularly severe cholera outbreak in 1833 that serious steps were taken. The town fathers of Zamora voted to create a municipal cemetery on the other side of the Duero, about a half-mile away from the river, and named it San Atilano, after a saintly 11th century bishop of Zamora, seen in this altarpiece in the cemetery chapel. 

 To do this, they assessed the local parishes. This, needless to say, was not popular. The arguments went on for years, with parishes seeking exemption from the assessment and also resenting the fact that they no longer received the fees for burials in the churchyard. In addition, there was much citizen grumbling, since wagons that crossed the bridge to come into Zamora were forced to carry construction materials back across the bridge to the cemetery on their return trip. 

 However, the work got done, and the cemetery opened in 1834. There were several expansions over the years, and it now occupies most of a hilltop about a kilometer from the bridge. 

The cemetery is laid out in sections that bear the names of saints, which reflect those of the parishes that bury their dead in this cemetery. 

 There are a number of elaborate family vaults from the late 19th century and onwards. But most of the graves are simply marked and some are within family enclosures.

The regulations of the cemetery allowed for the placement of a named headstone, but without thereby bestowing title in perpetuity to the plot. After a certain number of years, the bones were removed and placed in an ossuary. However, some family vaults are the property of the family, which is indicated on the vault. 

 Originality reigns in this cemetery. Above we see a vault that looks exactly like the Cathedral of Zamora, a remarkable Romanesque building with a curious 12th century Byzantine-influenced rounded dome with a "fish scale" tile- shown below.

Unlike modern cemeteries, which feature flat plaques designed for the convenience of the riding mower, San Atilano leaves the families room to express themselves. Some of the monuments are very elaborate, such as this hand-carved Guardian Angel, guarding a touching photo of the deceased.

 Or the glass flowers you see on this vault.

 But there are some special simple plots: here we see the graves of Spanish soldiers who fell in battle, starting in 1937 (the Spanish Civil War). 

The cemetery is busy at all times, with family members coming to care for graves, the constant sound of the mourning doves in the cypresses, and the many burials from local parishes. Below, a group of mourners follows a casket to the burial place.

There is a funeral chapel near the gate and outside is a box for alms for the “Holy Souls,” that is, masses to be said for the souls in Purgatory.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Tale of a Fence

As everybody who lives in St Augustine – and many who don’t – already know, we dedicated and blessed the new entryway at Tolomato Cemetery about a month ago, on May 7th, 2016.  This part of the project is done, although we’re still working on the back and sides and also plan to improve the stretch from the city sidewalk to the actual gate opening. But leaving aside such tedious details, we’d like to get back to some basic questions we are always asked, such as “How long did this take?”

 Well, it’s actually taken almost 240 years, since about 1777, with the arrival of the Minorcans in St Augustine during the British Period (1763-1784). A cemetery had probably existed on that site during the First Spanish Period, but it was associated with the Tolomato Indian mission village and Franciscan-run chapel located there.  This early map shows the location of the chapel, near the corner of modern Cordova and Orange streets.

Normally, burials in Spanish Florida were under the floor of the church or in the churchyard.  There would have been some kind of a wall around the church, extending the consecrated ground and thus making it usable for burials. There’s no record that the Tolomato mission had such a wall, or at any rate, not a stone wall, but there probably would have been some delineation of the space, such as a wooden fence with a gate or a pillar, etc. In a Franciscan village, the mission bell was frequently hung in this area, but the mission bell at Tolomato was probably located in the four-story coquina bell-tower that is recorded as having been part of the Tolomato chapel.

So we don’t have any record of a wall at this time, but we do have a couple of odd features that are difficult to explain and may have been part of a wall or gate.  One of them is visible only in an old photo and must have collapsed long ago, but the other still exists and causes considerable interest among visitors, many of whom take it to be a very strange vault and ask how people could be buried in this small square space.  This pyramid-shaped pile of coquina is only about a 3 feet square and perhaps a little more than that at its top and is located right behind the vault of Elizabeth Forrester, the oldest marked burial in the cemetery.

We have no answer, except that it was probably not a burial vault, unless it was an ossuary (receptacle for placing bones removed from overcrowded vaults or burials).  But it doesn’t seem to have much of an opening, other than the niche in the top, so it would have been difficult to get the skeletal remains into it without removing a few stones.  Speculation has now moved to having its be part of a wall or marking the boundary of an area, and the niche was perhaps for holding the base of a cross or some other marker and may actually have been part of the original mission site, with its "ermita de piedra," or stone chapel. 

But back to what we actually do know about the wall.

The earliest marked burial at the cemetery (and the oldest marked burial in the State of Florida) is that of Elizabeth Forrester, who died in 1798.  You see it above, with the aforementioned mysterious structure visible behind it.  At some point in the following years, grave robbers broke into the vault and stole Elizabeth Forrester's clothing for resale at one of the local thieves’ markets. They were caught and punished, and in 1809, the Spanish governor, Enrique White, ordered Fr. Miguel O’Reilly, the parish priest for the church on the plaza that would eventually be elevated into the Cathedral of St Augustine, to hire a guard and build a fence around the cemetery to prevent such a thing from happening again.

Fr. Miguel O’Reilly complained about the cost of this and said he wasn’t sure how much money was in the treasury because his assistant, Fr. Miguel Crosby, hadn’t audited the accounts for 11 years! However, we can assume that he went ahead and did it.  But again, we have no idea what it looked like, except that it was probably fairly basic, because in 1811, we see plans to change it.

In that year, plans were produced to completely redo the cemetery, creating a more modern cemetery laid out in a grid pattern with numbered burial plots, and a row of stone vaults and a catafalque at the back of the cemetery. (A catafalque in a cemetery is a structure somewhat like a table, where the casket is placed during the final parts of the burial service.)  We see a stone wall around it with ossuaries in the corners and two pillars for a double-leaved gate. However, the governor died in 1811, Fr. Miguel O’Reilly died in 1812 (his vault is shown below), and the Spanish Empire, already under threat from the independence movements of Latin America and the North American tensions that would lead to the War of 1812, simply didn’t have the money or the will to make such expensive improvements to this modest little city.

So the work was never finished - or even started - and the cemetery continued as it was for decades. Even in the mid-19th century, visitors to Tolomato Cemetery complained about the shabby appearance of the fence – which may have been the same one that Fr. Miguel O’Reilly set up in the early years.

In 1853, José María Casals, one of the Cubans who came to St. Augustine in 1853 to aid the ailing Fr. Felix Varela and found that they had arrived too late to do anything more than bury him, accompanied the parish priest, Fr. Aubril, to the cemetery to look at the land for the Varela Chapel. He comments that it was a lonely resting place, with a wooden enclosure and only four or five half-ruined old vaults, so clearly things had not improved much over the years.

Here we see a 19th century photograph of the old wooden wall. The “gate” seems to have been an interior door that had been lopsidedly hung between the crumbling wooden posts.

Even tourists mentioned its dismal state occasionally, and there were complaints from locals that cows kept knocking the fence down and getting into the cemetery.  But it seems not to have been until 1916 that steps were taken to replace the fence with something more dignified. On April 27, 1916, we see this notice in the St Augustine Record: “To Erect A Cemetery Wall: John Reyes has material unloaded on the ground for an artificial stone wall which will be built along the street line of the Catholic cemetery on Cordova street. The wall will be 117 feet long and 42 inches high. It will greatly improve the appearance of the cemetery, displacing the old fence which, although serviceable, was not very ornamental.”

Note the tactful description, “serviceable,” but “not very ornamental.”  So we may conclude that it looked horrible.

This resulted in the building of the concrete wall along the front and parts of the sides of the cemetery, which we see below in an early 20th century photo of strollers on Cordova Street.  Of course, the streets - particularly Cordova Street - had changed since the first days of the mission and cemetery, with some of them being straightened, some being widened, and some being eliminated.  However, allowing for a few feet that were acquired towards the front of the cemetery in the 19th century and the strip of land purchased in 1853 for the building of the Varela Chapel, thus making the original more square-like area more rectangular, the cemetery seems to have maintained its boundaries.

In fact, it is that very wall that came down to us and which we rebuilt along the front in this latest 2016 renovation, almost 100 years after the Record article.  The wall is made of a combination of concrete blocks, blocks of coquina (shown below), and even stacks of brick: in other words, whatever was at hand.

The 2016 repairs were a little more orderly, and consisted of adding concrete block and rebar pilasters to strengthen the wall while giving it another coat of concrete in those areas where it did not need repair.

And of course, the other major improvement was the addition of two high pillars for holding the beautiful wrought-iron gate, topped by its graceful archway that at last proudly bears the name “Tolomato” and gives this beautiful place the honor that it is due.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Open the Gates!

Saturday, May 7, 2016 was the big day! After some 220 years of starts, false starts and even indifference, Tolomato Cemetery finally got the entryway it has always deserved, one worthy of the beauty of the site, the City of St Augustine and, most important of all, the people who rest within it.

Years of work on the part of the TCPA went into this - in fact, we checked back in our records and saw that we first kicked off plans in 2012 - but now it's done.  And the results are beautiful, even more wonderful than we had hoped.


In the course of the project, the old chain-link and barbed wire fence on the front was removed, the masonry wall was rebuilt, a new fence was added to the top of it, and a splendid hand-forged wrought iron gate was added to the entryway, topped by the name of the cemetery and a cross in copper.


This project represents a solid four years of work by the Tolomato Cemetery Preservation Association.  At our board meeting planning for the dedication last week, a member commented that it seemed like we had been working on it forever – and when Louise Kennedy, our Secretary, checked her minutes, she found that the agenda item first appears way back in 2012!  That’s not quite forever, but it is certainly most of the life of the organization, which was only founded in 2010.

The board of the TCPA certainly deserves massive thanks for all the hours and days and weeks spent on this project, ranging from fundraising to consulting with designers and contractors to passing through the HARB (Historic Architecture Review Board) review and other bureaucratic chores.  They’re very modest, however, so while you see them scattered through these photos, such as that of the procession to the gate shown below, they wouldn’t step out for a feature photo!  But we all know who they are!


Many people were involved in this project, and the purpose of the dedication was to formally open the gates, which were completed only about two days earlier, and thank those many people.We had beautiful weather for the event, held in front of the Varela Chapel and then moving to the gate for the blessing by Fr. Tom Willis.The guests and a few lucky tourists who were just passing by ate cookies and listened to Elizabeth Gessner, President of the TCPA, describe the work and introduce the people who had participated in this nearly four-year-long project.  


So let’s start with the donors, without which nothing would have been possible! There were first of all the many, many donations we have gotten through our “Foot of Fence” program, where people could visit the website and contribute $10 to “buy” or sponsor a foot of fence – or could “buy” as many feet as they wanted. All of these names and those of all the other donors, along with technical information on the construction and the project, will be included in a time capsule to be placed near the front wall sometime this year.

We also had larger individual donors who made memorial contributions and will have memorial plaques placed on the inside of the front wall. More on that as it happens!


Important institutional donors were also in attendance. They included the Minorcan Society, represented by Carol Lopez Bradshaw, who is shown above talking to the crowd about the work of the Minorcan Society, which raised money by raffling off a traditional Minorcan cast net, handmade by member Mike Usina. Many of those buried in Tolomato are Minorcans, and thus the ancestors of the members of the Minorcan Society, so this was a very fitting moment.

Also present were members of the Rotary Club, represented by Katherine Battenhorst.  Because of the very, very generous 450th Commemoration donation made to the project by the Rotary Club, the northern end of the outside fence now bears a splendid new bronze Rotary plaque honoring this donation so that visitors can see it as they walk downtown from the City parking garage. Louise Kennedy, TCPA Secretary, admires the plaque in this photo below.

Louise and Rotary Plaque

But there were other people who were crucial in this, and they were present to receive their accolades. Don Crichlow, the St Augustine architect who is descended from about half of the historic families whose names can be seen in the cemetery, donated his graceful plan for the fence and entryway that enabled the TCPA to go ahead. The light fence on top of the wall, conserving the 100-year old curve into the gate, are particular features of this plan. We’ll have more historical information on the fence and gate in a blog post within the next week or two so that you can see its connections with that first project of more than 200 years ago.  But meanwhile below you see Don Crichlow talking about his part in this lengthy project.

Don Talking

And then we have the gate! We already see visitors standing in front of it to have their pictures taken and people taking photos of the gate alone, so it’s a pretty spectacular addition that I think will become a St. Augustine landmark. And it was made by a St. Augustinian, Scott Thompson, shown below opening the gate and doing his happy dance because it was finally done and everything was perfect!

Scott Entering Gate

Scott is a graduate of Flagler College and still lives in St Augustine, and actually spontaneously proposed his design at an Open Day when he was visiting with his brother and friends. Graduating with a BFA, he found himself gravitating towards metalwork and is now the blacksmith for an ornamental metalwork company in Jacksonville. He researched different styles and designed the perfect one for this site: an 18th century Spanish style piece, light, airy but at the same time formal and elegant. The gate is wrought iron and the name of the cemetery and the cross are copper, so they will develop a beautiful patina with age.  Everything was forged by Scott at his shop in Jacksonville.


We also had another “special” heir of Tolomato who came to bless the gates and be the first one to open them: Fr. Tom Willis, the pastor of the Cathedral Basilica (which owns the cemetery). He is a St Augustine native and in his way is also the “heir” of the several St Augustine priests buried in the cemetery, particularly Fr. Miguel O’Reilly, who was responsible for the first fence and gate at the cemetery some 200+ years ago. Below we see Fr. Tom with Scott Thompson, Elizabeth Gessner and Don Crichlow.

Fr. Tom, Scott, EDG, Don

Fr.Tom gave an address on the chapel porch and then led the group from the chapel to the gate while Joanie Oliveros Taylor, Don Chrichlow’s cousin and therefore also related to half the people in the cemetery, played “Amazing Grace,”  accompanied by our “official Chapel Harpist,” Mary Jane Ballou. And then Fr. Tom blessed the gate while the crowd stood on the inside.

Fr T Blessing

Then, as a visual representation of Fr. Miguel O’Reilly and all his predecessors and the history of this place, Fr. Tom Willis was the first person to officially open the gates and go right on through. 

Fr Tom Willis

The moment we had all been waiting for!  By the way, notice the beautiful curve in the fence, which follows the restored old wall and was part of Don’s design, executed in aluminum by local metalworker Glen Easters.

After that, we all went back to stand around the chapel and eat cookies and take photos, such as those in this post, taken by Nick McAuliffe, Patty Kelbert and Joan Roberts.  Meanwhile, Matt Armstrong stayed at the gate, proudly welcoming passing St Augustine visitors to step through the gates.

Matt at Gate

It was truly a beautiful day and a wonderful moment for Tolomato Cemetery. We are hoping that it is pleasing to both past and present St. Augustinians and to our many visitors. The TCPA is very proud of the beautiful work that finally gives the cemetery an entryway worthy of its history and of the people resting there, and thanks all of the many people who helped in this achievement.