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Contributed by: Anthony Genovese on 6/14/2006

Historic Ventura Cemetery turned into Dog Park !

Ventura's St Mary cemetary needs your help. The remains of approximately 3,000 Catholics, Protestants, Chinese, Jewish and Chumash people were still underneath the cemetary grass when the cemetery was converted to a Ventura park in the mid-1960s. The city turned this 7 acre Cemetery into a Dog Park. Those human remains are still there to this day.

Mr. Steve Schleder has been instrumental in trying to restore a historic pioneer, war veteran, and native American cemetary in downtown Ventura. The professional architecture restoration expert, historic preservationist and Ventura Catholic has spent untold hours and several thousand dollars attempting to right what he and others consider a mighty wrong: the city of Ventura's conversion of St. Mary's Cemetary of pioneer families and war heroes into what is now officially referred to as Cemetery Memorial Park. This cemetary holds many of the cities founders and there are over 60 Veterans buried there, some historic Civil War, Indian War and Spanish American War burials. Also, Medal of Honor winner Private James Sumner, Company G, 1st US Cavalry rests in this 'park'. He recieved his Medal of Honor for "gallantry-in-a-charge" on Oct. 20, 1869 in the Chiricahua Mts, Arizona. Awarded on Feb. 14, 1870. Cochise and the Apaches had kidnapped a white settler child in order to draw the 21 soldiers of the 1st Cavalry, Comany G into a box canyon and an ambush. A firefight from hell ensued. The Indians that weren't killed, disappeared into the hills. Two soldiers were killed. All 21 soldiers were awarded the MoH. Private James Sumner was one of them. There are many other notable veterans still buried in this park.

Local residents are concerned of use of their local park and often call the park 'haunted'. The park is located between Main and Poli Streets, one mile east of the Mission San Buenaventura. The idea to convert the cemetery to a park was tossed around as early as 1938, but no significant action was taken until 1955, when the city purchased the western 110 feet from the Los Angeles Archdiocese to build a recreation center and parking lot. Later, the recreation center failed structurally and was eventually removed but the parking lot remains. Looking back at City Council minutes from the mid-'60s, it appears that by 1964 the wheels of progress were turning at high speed with at least one new development per week approved by the city. The cemetery, which had by all accounts become unsightly, didn't mesh with the growing city's idea of modernity. Despite the fact that by law it was the city's responsibility to maintain the cemetery, it was decided that a park would be a better use for the space, and plans for a conversion from a cemetary to park was done.

Mr Schleder has been instrumental in garnering public & media attention to Ventura's municipal mistake. He wants to see the city park changed back to the respectful consecrated cemetary to honor the many families of those buried there. All the cemetary marble family headstones were removed and dumped in a adjoining river and which is now under a levy. An elderly Ventura woman reported to neighbors that she watched in horror from her backyard as city workers dumped hundreds of assorted marble grave markers or headstones into a barranca in the 1960's. The event was traumatic for her and, she refuses to go on record with her testimony for fear of retribution. Pat Clark Doehner, a vocal supporter of cemetery restoration efforts, remembers when her cousin, Larry Rose, was taking a sculpture class at Ventura College in the early '70s. Rose told her that students were directed to Hall Canyon, which runs perpendicular to the southeastern edge of Ventura High School, for free sculpture material. They were told, "There's marble up in Hall Canyon, go get it," she said. And they did. The marble she referred to was, of course, the discarded headstones. A historian, Pat Clark Doehner is currently writing a book about her ancestors, many of whom are buried in Cemetery Park. Clark Doehner says she was not contacted in 1964, when the city, according to current city officials, notified residents so they could retrieve family headstones.

Many of these headstones are very large and valuable. Many people who have visited the barranca to investigate witness claims that hundreds of tombstones were dumped there can attest to that. Not only did they see a gargantuan granite stone with the inscription "Johnson," previously discovered by Schleder, they also unearthed a second stone, bearing only the word "Leonard," from the muddy terrain. To liberate the Johnson headstone, which Schleder said he's had appraised at $12,000, from the barranca and reunite it with its heirs (something Schleder fully intends to do) would require a truck and a winch. Schleder says he knows of at least 50 other families interested in reclaiming the marble headstones of their ancestors.

To complicate this conversion mistake, also there may be human remains beneath the public parking lot. When the Catholic Church deeded the westernmost portion of what had been St. Mary's Cemetery to the city for the recreation center, it claimed no one had ever been laid to rest there. However, there's no accounting for the graves of numerous converted Chumash Indians believed to have been buried in the cemetery, and the edge of the grounds would be the likeliest place for their interment considering the Church's hierarchal burial system; those considered most important were typically placed in the blessed center with the poor and marginalized pushed to the perimeter. Some have speculated that the statement no one was buried in the westernmost section of the cemetery could have actually translated to Native American Indians were buried there. When Mr Schleder lays a transparency of the cemetery's plot plan, which he created from public records detailing the location of burial sites, over the top of an aerial photo of the park, he says that it clearly shows there were plots in the western 110-foot area. When the plot numbers are matched with city burial records, at least seven fall into the portion that is currently used as a parking lot. Perhaps more compelling is the plot plan used by engineers during construction of the recreation center. The plan does show graves in the western 110 feet but, curiously, the portion of the plan that includes the recreation center appears to have been cut away from the rest of the document.

Sue Silver, state coordinator for California Saving Graves, state liaison of the State Cemetery and Funeral Bureau and State Office of Historic Preservation representative for Historic Cemeteries, told the VC Reporter via e-mail that it appears the cemetery was converted "under the guise of creating a pioneer memorial park" by way of California Health and Safety Code Sec. 8825 to 8829. According to Silver, that specific law has been used in many instances to convert cemeteries to parks; however, that was not the intention of the legislation. "California law is clear," wrote Silver. "The land remains dedicated to cemetery purposes as long as the remains are still in the ground. To use a non-abandoned cemetery (where the remains still exist) as anything other than a cemetery is a violation of the law. Was then. Still is."

The issues surrounding St Marys/Cemetery Park are garnering attention from media and preservation agencies outside Ventura County. On past Memorial and Veteran Days, Schleder organized and funded an historical 1893 funeral procession re-enactment, complete with a 6-horse team military caisson, Confederate and Union troops, and a black powder canon salute to honor Major General William Vandever, war veterans and all the people buried at what is now called cemetery park or memorial park. Other historical military events are scheduled. A historical funeral procession re-enactment will run from Mission San Buenaventura, east on Main Street, to the cemetery. "Procession Honoree" will be the Congressional Medal of Honor recipient James Sumner, Company G, 1st Cavalry, who died in Ventura in 1912. Also present for the funeral procession will be re-enactors for "Presidents; Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Ulysses S. Grant." "John Calvin Brewster" and 25 other locally historic people, who are buried at the cemetery, will be re-enacted by the "Tale Spinners" historical group. The event's Special Honorary Guest and Speaker has been Colonel Lewis Millet, Congressional MoH recipient of the Korean Conflict.

The Friends of St. Mary's Cemetery and Ventura Cemetery goals are as follows:
1. installing appropriate signage indicating names, historical significance, location and directions to the cemeteries; St. Mary's Cemetery (1862) and the Ventura Cemetery (1889).
2. determining the location of the 3,000+ deceased in the cemeteries and acknowledging them accordingly.
3. retrieving, to the extent possible, all historic headstones.
4. installing around the perimeter of the cemeteries, 24 - 1920's cast-iron street lights rescued from the City's Hall Canyon storage yard.

Please, get involved and help St Mary's cause. For more information visit

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