for a Country Graveyard
The Ventura County Historical Society Quarterly
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
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
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.