Eulogy for a Country Graveyard


The Ventura County Historical Society Quarterly
Fall 1980
By Msgr. Francis J. Weber

Just a century ago William E. Gladstone observed, "Show me the manner in which a nation or community cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender sympathies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land and their loyalty to high ideas." The sentiments of that great British prime minister, if not his actual words, must have prompted the pastor and people of San Buenaventura Mission to look for a parcel of land on which to develop a new and more commodious burial ground for the historic church.

The property for the parish cemetery, comprising a tract of land 400 feet by 400 feet, was acquired from George S. Wright, Henry Webb, Edmund L. Gould and Daniel Waterman in 1862. It was officially deeded to the Rt. Rev. Thaddeus Amat, Bishop the Diocese of Monterey-Los Angeles, on October 03 "for the use and purpose of a Catholic Burying Ground" at San Buenaventura. (1) Ynez Sanches was the first one to be interred in the "cementerio nuevo." She was buried by the Rev. Juan Comapla on October 21, 1862 in the grave purchased by her husband. (2) From an old subscription list, it would appear that only four lots were sold to Roman Catholics prior to 1882, the year the cemetery was divided into blocks. (3)

Responding to an invitation from the local Roman Catholic populace, Bishop Francis Mora dispatched his Vicar-General, Joachim Adam, to San Buenaventura where he solemnly blessed the parochial cemetery on September 28, 1884, placing it under the patronage of Saint Mary. (4) Assisting at the ceremonies were the Revs. Juan Pujol and Cyprian Rubio.

Part of the Rancho Ex-Mission, the San Buenaventura cemetery was located on a hillside at the eastern edge of the town site between Main and Poli Streets. When the city was incorporated in 1866, the burial plots were about 2000 feet outside its boundaries; and oversight only remedied a decade later.

In 1870 the San Buenaventura Commercial, Manufacturing and Mining Company, which owned most of the acreage in the original mission grant, deeded an adjacent section of property to the First Presbyterian Church for a "public" cemetery. [Although its Board of Trustees on October 28, 1876 "decided to grant to the Hebrew Society that of the graveyard east of the barranca (these appearing to be a debt of the Society)"(5) it was 1895 before a Jewish Cemetery was subdeeded to "L. Cerf, A. Bernheim, L. Hayfield, T. Wineman, all Trustees of the Jewish Church: Blocks nos. 2, 3, 4, 5, 42, 43, 44 and Lots nos. 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 north of Block 2."(6) There may have been other ethnic sections since the Chinese names cluster close to Main Street. Although they set up a treasurer for the cemetery, the Presbyterians settled all claims against the account on October 1, 1878.](7) The City of San Buenaventura acquired the deed to these areas of the burial grounds in 1889.

[According to Austin Perley, Head of Ventura City Parks, the first caretaker was Joseph Richardson whose business and home where at the corner of Main and California Streets. De Moss Wilkin, a gardener, was next. In the end Frank Roby looked after those lots he was paid for; he was later hired by the city parks department, working two days of each week at the cemetery. The cobblestone retaining wall was built in 1934 on a WPA project. The two stones were engraved by a Myers of Ernie Frost's monument works.

The Ventura city and county directories list: J.M. Findley as sexton in 1910-11; L.T. Burdin in 1912-13; P.C. Kirkpatrick and Mrs., M.S. Burdin in 1914-15; F.H. Roby and Mrs. M.S. Burdin in 1916-17; and F.N. Roby in 1921-22.8

An item in the Signal one hundred years ago shows public interest in their cemetery: Two ladies of Ventura, Mrs. A.J. Snodgrass and Mrs. Charles Bergstrom, have taken on themselves the great task of getting money which will be used to put our cemetery on the hill in decent condition. They deserve credit for dong something that should have been done long ago by the town. We should all take a great interest in seeing to it that the last resting place of out relatives and friends is properly cared for. Our cemetery has long been like a wild field, overgrown with mustard. A vote of thanks to these ladies who, unaided, have shown a spirit in their enterprise that others would do will to emulate. (9)]

Inasmuch as the westernmost 110 feet of Saint Mary's Cemetery were never developed for interment purposes, it became customary for the various caretakers to utilize that area for gardening in return for looking after the graves in the cemetery proper. In 1922, Robert M. Sheridan, a prominent Ventura attorney, suggested to Bishop John J. Cantwell that "if conditions contained in the original deed to Bishop Amat are of such a nature as would make possible a sale of that portion of the Catholic cemetery which has not been used for burials, a good price could doubtless be obtained for the property." Sheridan felt that such a transaction would "not only relieve the parish of the burdens of present and future taxes and assessments but would also give the parish a working fund for the upkeep and maintenance of the balance of the cemetery."(10) The bishop's secretary answered Sheridan's letter in a note to the Rev. Patrick J. Grogan, in which he expressed the view that the deed "would seem to prevent the consideration of the sale of any of this land for other purposes."(11)
In October of 1943 Archbishop John J. Cantwell contacted a descendant of the donors of Saint Mary's Cemetery asking if the restriction that it be used "in its entirety exclusively for cemetery purposes" might be rescinded. The prelate noted that "because of the rapid growth of Ventura, the facilities at the old mission are no longer adequate and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is "considering the building of a new church in Ventura to supplement the old mission." He felt that a "portion of the old cemetery property would provide an ideal site for a church." He concluded by asking for a quitclaim deed to the property, surrendering reversionary rights. (12) In 1945, the Rev. Daniel J. Hurley revived the earlier proposal that the undeveloped proposal that the undeveloped parcel of Saint Mary's Cemetery be used for building a church. Lawrence L. Otis, a counsel for the Title Insurance and Trust Company, rendered an opinion that "the erection and maintenance of a Catholic Church on a portion of the property" would not be a diversion of the original deed of gift. (13) By the time, however, the rapid growth of Ventura to the east had rendered Hurley's plan obsolete.

In September on 1949, the church deeded a ten-foot frontage of the property to the city for the purpose of widening the streets. For its part, the city agreed to plant some hedges and install water lines. (14) On December 9, 1952, the Recreation Commission for the city outlined a "long-term plan for the development of a centrally-located site for a Social-Cultural Recreation Center" on the unused parcel of Saint Mary's Cemetery. (15) The following fall, the city completed arrangements to purchase the 110 feet from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, with the understanding that it be used for recreational purposes. A check for $15,000 was drawn to Cardinal James Francis McIntyre on July 8, 1954 "in a settlement of the condemnation action by the city of San Buenaventura for part of the old cemetery property."(16) It was further agreed that the city would assume responsibility for any general maintenance work in the Roman Catholic portion of the cemetery, for which the cost would be borne by the church.

Prior to 1917, Saint Mary's and its contiguous graveyard were the only burial area for the city and its environs. In October of that year George E. Hume and a group of developers (17) opened Ivy Lawn Cemetery, a factor that contributed to the diminishing use and importance of the older location. Although Ivy Lawn has always been privately owned and operated, provisions were made for Roman Catholic interments, a practice that perjured for many years. And in 1965 the parochial cemetery of Santa Clara was expanded to provide for burials of non-Oxnard inhabitants.

By the end of the 1930's, the cemetery had become an object of neglect: weed-choked and cluttered with shattered tombstones, the area needed attention. A proposal was made by the city planning commission in December 1938 to convert the cemetery into a public park. Besides installing sidewalks along Main Street, no further action was taken on the suggestion. Eleven years later it authorized a feasibility study for using the property for multiple housing, a plan that was later put aside.

The final interments were made in 1943; one burial was made in each graveyard in January and March. In May of the following year and ordinance was passed prohibiting any further burials. (18) By law, a cemetery becomes legally abandoned five years after the last interment. The exact number of interments between 1862 and 1943 cannot be determined, mainly because a number of remains were subsequently removed to Ivy Lawn and other cemeteries. An approximation would read: 2,126 Protestants, 806 Roman Catholics and 48 Jews, a total of 2,980.

In 1963, the City of Ventura adopted a plan drafted by Charles Reiman calling for the removal of curbs, slabs, vaults, headstones and bases. The Rev. Aubrey O'Reilly, Pastor of San Buenaventura Mission, suggested that small brass markers be set flush with the ground, with numbers keyed to a large monument whereon all the interments were enumerated. Letters were sent to heirs of all those buried in the tripartite cemetery, announcing the city's intention of removing the headstones and converting the cemetery into a park. Families wishing to claim the approximately 600 headstones were told they could pick them up in Hall Canyon where they had been carefully stored, in alphabetical order, just inside a work yard operated by the Parks Department. After seven years they were taken to the Olivas Golf Course levee and buried in rubble. Only six bodies were actually moved, all of them originally interred above ground in lawn crypts; the remains were re-casketed and then buried directly beneath the earlier crypts. Eleven graves have been marked at the request of their descendants.

There were, of course, objections to the idea. For example, Mrs. Donald Lindsay was "quite horrified" at the whole concept; she maintained that the cemetery should be preserved "as an historical landmark" rather than be dismantled and converted to a park area. (19) Others quite vociferously favored the program. Helen Emily Webster was "delighted with the plans now being carried forward". She noted that it was "gratifying to know that the space will remain an open greenbelt in the midst of the lively building activity in this part of the city."(20) Calm minds prevailed and the historic graveyard is now a beautiful memorial area overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the Channel Islands. Covered by trees, shrubs and thick lawns, the old cemetery has become a monument to those of earlier generations.


NOTES TO THE TEXT

1. Santa Barbara Co., Deeds, A 393.
2. Libro de difuntos, II (1824-1912) 1215.
3. Plot book for Saint Mary's Cemetery, San Buenaventura, California (1882-1921) in the Archives of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles (AALA).
4. Libro de difuntos, II (1824-1912) 1627.
5. First Presbyterian Church. Board of Trustees. Minutes, 1869-1883.
6. Zelma W. Wilcox, Ventura-city-cemetery record (1966) 36.
7. Op. cit., First Presbyterian Church.
8. Ventura County directory, 1896-.
9. March 27, 1880.
10. April 20 (AALA).
11. John J. Devlin on April 25, 1922 (AALA).
12. 21st (AALA).
13. To Ralph J. Baily, Nov. 5, 1945 (AALA).
14. Daniel J. Hurley to James Francis Cardinal McIntyre, Sept. 24, 1949 (AALA).
15. Thor O. Olsen to Robert M. Sheridan, Dec. 9, 1952 (AALA).
16. Memo to James Francis Cardinal McIntyre, July 8, 1954 (AALA).
17. Others were Edgar Crane, David Darling and Joseph McGarth.
18. San Buenaventura, Ordinances, 600.
19. Star-Free Press, Dec. 3, 1964.
20. Ibid., Dec. 20, 1964.


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