Park's Previous Life
By Charles Hillinger
It's one of the most popular parks in town for walking, jogging, throwing Frisbees, relaxing, enjoying a spectacular panorama of the Pacific Ocean and the Channel Islands.
It's seven acres in the heart of Ventura, an oasis of manicured lush green lawns, stately pine and pepper trees.
But this is not your typical green space in an urban setting.
Beneath the park's surface are the remains of 3,322 Ventura County residents who died between 1842 and 1944.
Cemetery Park is a cemetery that became a city park.
All the tombstones were removed in 1968 and 1969 when the transformation occurred. But the bodies were left undisturbed and some small grave markers remain.
No sign proclaims: "Cemetery Park."
It's just there. Out-of-towners and many residents who moved here during the past 20 years are unaware the park was a cemetery for more than a century.
Baltazar Lopez, wife Annette and their children Veronica, 2 and Bryon, 1, had their picnic lunch spread out on a blanket. They live in Ventura but didn't know the history of the park. When informed of its previous use, Annette Lopez remarked, "That's pretty scary. I wonder who we're sitting on...?"
Trevor Rumsey and Melanie Allred, both 16 and Ventura High School juniors were at the park on a lunch break. They sat on the grass near two flat small bronze markers at two burial sites. They know the park is also a cemetery.
"I think it's great. You really can't tell it's a cemetery. There are a few of these markers scattered around. But most people I've talked to in the park are unaware people are buried there," Rumsey said.
Four joggers dashed by, running from one end of the park to the other. Waitress Patty Trischler, 31, led her schnauzer through the park on a leash.
Bob Romero, 59, of the Ventura Parks and Recreation Department, is one of the groundskeepers at Cemetery Park.
"This is a very unusual situation," said Romero, with the department 34 years. "The cemetery had been an eyesore for a long time. It was full of weeds. Headstones were toppled. There hadn't been any burials here since World War II. Finally the city removed the headstones, cleaned the place up and made a park out of the cemetery. My wife's sister, Eleanor Garcia, who dies when she was 15, is buried here."
When the park was created, headstones were presented to relatives who requested them. Those not claimed were destroyed.
At first the city planned to erect a bronze plaque listing in alphabetical order the names of everyone buried in the cemetery. But that was not done.
Five years ago the city decided to place a small flat bronze marker without charge at the request of relatives over burial sites. Only 33 of the markers have been requested and installed so far.
"Every now and then someone from out of town comes into the City Hall asking what happened to the old cemetery. They're usually looking for the grave of a long-deceased relative," City Clerk Barbara Kam said.
This summer a dozen men in Civil War uniforms came to the park and fired 21 gun salutes at the dedication of two markers, one to the memory of Congressional Medal of Honor winner James Sumner, the other to Brig. Gen. William Vandever.
Sumner was awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism when he was wounded while an Army private in a battle with Indians in Arizona in 1869. The final years of his life were spent working in an Oxnard saloon. He died in the Ventura County Poorhouse in 1912.
Vandever was a Union general in the Civil War and a congressman from Ventura from 1887-1891. He died in 1893.
Several people in the park the day the two markers were dedicated called the Police Department asking why a bunch of men in old-fashioned uniforms kept firing guns into the air.
Copyright © 2004 Restore St. Mary's Cemetery.
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