Sunday, December 10, 2017

Tolomato 2017 - Lights and Shadows

We're getting ready for our Annual Meeting this coming Saturday, December 16, from 4-6:00 pm, and all of you who get this blog post are welcome.  It's also our Christmas party, which we have outdoors at the cemetery, so dress warmly!

 But before we start marking our calendars, let's look at what has happened over the last year.  Blog posts have been a little scanty because we have had so many time consuming reconstruction tasks as a result of a hurricane named Matthew, followed in less than 12 months time by a hurricane named Irma, and the major focus was on those events.  Nonetheless, we had some real high points and great events in between all those consultations with fence companies, tree surgeons, etc.

In January, 2017 we started with a gloomy sight – a dark day with our proud red cedar sheared off at the top.  This was damage from Matthew in October of 2016, but most of the other damage had been remedied by then.

So the famous TCPA volunteers, docents and board members, such as Brooke and Janet, above,  got busy and we moved along with our usual Open Day and visitor schedule, having an average of 3-400 visitors on each Open Day over the spring and summer. We had some special spring events: the annual Minorcan Day in February, a visit from our Cuban archeological friends, and some interesting individual visitors. For example, we had two visitors from a historic cemetery in Roswell, Georgia, who told us the sad Civil War story of the lost women of Roswell.  And we had numerous descendants and other interested parties who came looking for genealogical information (which Louise Kennedy, and her new "genealogist in training," Joan, were happy to supply).

We had another big event in April, with the installation of the DAR marker for Juan Ruiz del Canto, a Spanish naval captain who assisted the Americans in the Revolutionary War. We now have three Revolutionary War figures marked at the cemetery: Don Juan McQueen, Juan Ruiz del Campo, and Francisco Xavier Sanchez.  St Augustine was under the British during the Revolution, so most of their activity took place elsewhere, usually on the seas.

We decorated for Memorial Day in May and in June we were ready for a CRPT (Cemetery Resource Preservation Training) event, showing attendees the cemetery and our preservation activities.  We also started a few projects aimed at furthering these ends: the improvement of lighting in the Varela Chapel and the installation of a large room-sized storage shed, given to us by the Cathedral for use as an office and materials storage space, on the grounds of St Benedict’s Church in Lincolnville. The lighting project is temporarily suspended, since Hurricane Irma made us realize that there are more pressing needs for the Varela Chapel. But the new TCPA “office” is moving ahead. The shed has been moved to a good location, insulated, supplied with shelving and lighting, and is now awaiting the installation of windows.  Below you see Barbara Wingo opening the door, and it is now keeping our papers and supplies high and dry.

In June, Elizabeth went to the conference of the Association for Gravestone Studies in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and came back with all sorts of ideas, as well as having learned about "comb graves" (which we don't have here in Florida). At the moment, a group of Florida cemetery enthusiasts, including Shelby Bender, Emily Jane from FPAN, and Catherine Eddins from Tallahassee, are engaged in forming and planning the first program for the new Florida Chapter of the AGS.  More on that later!

Elizabeth also went on a quest to find the original Tolomato site. There is a site that is inaccurately known as Tolomato Island, near Darien, Georgia – which actually turned out to be the remains of a 19th century sugar mill, something that hasn’t stopped optimistic developers from using the name, as you see below  - but the verifiable site is the next photo, an idyllic location at what is now the Harris Neck Wildlife Refuge, near St Catherine’s Island in Georgia. Artifacts have been found, but the actual location hasn’t been determined; however, we’re getting closer. One of these days we'll know more.

August was a fairly quiet month, marked mainly by the visit of  And we were fortunate enough to have Emily Ford, from the New Orleans restoration company Oak and Laurel, come in and take a look at the Oliveros Papy vault, which is in serious need of preservation. We started work on this, and found that the descendants are interested...but then...Irma hit.

This time, the flooding seems to have been somewhat less of a problem than the wind. There was no damage to the markers, except that the sign you see below and the new bushes we had just put in, alas, are no more. They were pulverized by huge limbs that fell from the big oak tree near the gate. But the gate itself was spared, and the damage was cleaned up within little more than a month, although the tree near the gate will never look the same.

We were fortunate enough to have clean-up help from members of a men’s prayer group from a parish in Pennsylvania who wanted to aid post-Irma Florida, and wanted to help somebody who couldn’t pay them back.  So they called around to the cemeteries and found us. The two men, accompanied by Conrad from the local hostal, The Pirate Haus, wielded their chain saws and went through these huge limbs snicker-snack. Below you see Our Heroes, accompanied by TCPA members. Then the pros came in with their trucks and hauled off the mountains of debris.

Other lesser damage, such as the cracked NE corner of the new wall, is under repair. 

We were open again in October, and we had a huge event at the end of the month just to prove it. Florida Living History sponsored its Dia de los Difuntos event at the cemetery, and we hosted reenactors - such as James Bullock “being” Gen. Biassou and Fr. Medina “being” Fr. Varela – and even a short 16th century Spanish play presented by Theater with a Mission from Tallahassee. It was a great event, attended by some 700 people, and we expect to do it again next year.

In November, we also had another All Souls event, the annual blessing of the graves led by Fr. Tom Willis from the Cathedral. As always, the Minorcans, accompanied by Fr. Ed Booth, came to Tolomato for their usual November prayers for their Minorcan ancestors, as well as for a chance to view the new fence-donor plaque installed on the wall, as Menorcan Society President Rusty Hall is doing below. The other donor plaques are in the works and will be ready early next year.

Also in the fall, we had preservation activities with our Flagler College friends and a great visit from a group of 7th graders from FSDB (Florida School for the Deaf and Blind), who did rubbings and learned about the cemetery and local history.

We also conducted a condition survey of all of the features, and are preparing to work on a few especially threatened markers and vaults. In addition to the Oliveros Papy vault, we have other vaults that need attention (repointing of bricks, restoration of plastering, etc.), deteriorating metalwork, and our centerpiece, the Varela Chapel, which needs painting and moisture control. You’ll hear more about this next year.

Tolomato made it to the screen a couple of times this fall, with the cemetery being used as an (unidentified) backdrop for an episode of the PBS show “Secrets of the Dead,” and also being filmed for part of a series on the Minorcans in St Augustine.

Also in November, we were saddened to announce the death of one of our wonderful volunteers, Priscilla de la Cruz, whom many will remember from the front gate, where she greeted visitors wearing her famous top hat.  Requiescat in pace, dear Priscilla.

Finally, we made it to December.  To start, Janet decorated the chapel and the bishop with a wreath and poinsettias. Then, a couple of days ago, we had a group of Greek visitors from the Panhellenic Society in the far off Tampa-St Pete area, who laid a wreath and had an Orthodox memorial service at the tomb of Mary Darling, known in St Augustine for having been a teacher at what is now called the Oldest Schoolhouse. She was a member of the Genopoly family, which bears an Anglicized version of their Greek name, and thus a descendant of one of the “Greek Minorcan” families who arrived in St. Augustine in 1777.

 And now? The only thing left this year, of course, is our Annual Meeting and Christmas Party, which will be held on Saturday, December 16, at 4:00 pm just after the closing of the gates for our regular Open Day.  If you’re getting this blog post – you’re invited. There will be tasty goodies and beverages, a chance to meet fellow Tolomato fans, and you’ll get to hear more of the details on our important preservation plans for 2018. Naturally, you are more than welcome to become a member if you’re not already one, renew your membership if it has lapsed, and – most important – volunteer to be part of these exciting things next year!  We need you!