Families Seek to Bring Cemetery Back to Life
The site, now a Ventura park, contains nearly
By Arianne Aryanpur
Times Staff Writer
July 29, 2004
In 1919, Paul Rossi paid $81 to bury his wife, Flora, at St. Mary's
Cemetery in Ventura. By some accounts, it was a bad investment.
Today, the ground where Flora rests is a city park on a grassy slope
overlooking the ocean, a popular spot for joggers, picnickers
and Frisbee-chasing dogs.
Nearly 3,000 people are buried at "Cemetery Park," as the
locals call it, including Civil War veterans and county pioneers, such
as William Dewey Hobson, who led Ventura's break from Santa Barbara
County in 1873. A few dozen markers remain to identify some of those
But most, like Flora, are in unmarked graves, lost to history and their
families. The city converted the nearly 150-year-old cemetery, overgrown
with weeds and a target of vandals, to a public park in the 1960s and
removed 600 headstones, some 10 to 15 feet high. The monuments
were dumped in a nearby canyon.
Now, local preservationist Steve Schleder, 52, is leading a crusade
along with some families to restore the seven-acre cemetery to its original
state, headstones and all. The Ventura resident said the dead deserved
more respect from the city and a chance to finally rest in peace, meaning no park dwellers.
"This could very well happen to us," Schleder said. "What
value is our lives and deaths if we get mowed over and people bring
their dogs to urinate and defecate all over our graves?"
For the past eight months, Schleder has lobbied the City Council and
spoken to several civic groups to rally their support. He has also set
up a website to educate the public about the park's history: http://www.restorestmarys.org
Among those buried at Memorial Park, its official name, are Brig. Gen.
William Vandever, who commanded troops in the Civil War and was a congressman
from Ventura from 1887-1891; Pvt. James Sumner, who was awarded the
Medal of Honor for bravery in an Indian battle in Arizona in 1869, and
Ventura's first mayor, Walter Scott Chaffee. The last burial took place
Schleder said he would like the cemetery to become part of the National
Register of Historic Places, perhaps joining other military cemeteries
such as Arlington in Virginia and Vicksburg in Mississippi. But for
now, he would settle for the city returning the park to its original
He has received help from several family members whose relatives are
One of them is Janice Fistolera, Flora's granddaughter, who is considering
suing the city for failing to locate her grandmother's burial spot.
She would like to exhume her grandmother's body and move it to a Catholic
"I want to see her laying in a cemetery for what she paid for in
1919, $81 and some odd cents for the plot and funeral services,"
said Fistolera, a resident of Tracy, Calif. "I'm just asking that
the property, be restored."
City officials are sympathetic but said restoring the cemetery would
not be financially practical.
"It would put us right back in the position we were in before,
trying to maintain a site that would be expensive to maintain,"
said Parks Department head Jerry Revard. "I don't know how it would
be possible, much less cost-effective."
City Councilman Sandy Smith agreed. "I think it's going to be a
little difficult to go back in time, take a park and go back to a cemetery," he said.
Opened in 1862 as St. Mary's, the Catholic cemetery was later divided
into Protestant, Jewish and Chinese sections.
But by 1944, the city-owned cemetery was racked with financial problems
and fell into disrepair, marked by overgrown weeds and toppled headstones.
More burials were prohibited.
In 1963, the city took the 600 headstones to nearby Hall Canyon and
laid them out in alphabetical order. Family members were contacted to
Many went unclaimed, however, and some were stolen and a few ended up
in a creek running through the canyon.
Every so often, the current exposes a headstone, such as the 500-pound
tablet Schleder found several months ago half-buried in rocks and sand.
The Vermont blue marble has been appraised at $12,000.
Schleder continues to search the canyon and creek area, hoping to retrieve
"My first inclination was to rent a flatbed and tractor, dig them
out and plop 'em down where they belong," Schleder said. "But
that's a way to get arrested."
Patricia Clark Doerner, 68, recovered the headstone of her great-grandfather
after a Ventura man saw it in the canyon and, with the help of his sons,
dragged out the 400-pound slab. Doerner keeps the headstone where it's
been for the last 15 years, propped near a fire hydrant under
an oak tree on her Ojai ranch.
She hopes to return the monument one day to her great-grandfather's
"Good heavens, there are bodies there," said Doerner, who
has five other relatives buried at the park. "How dare they think
they could do something else with the land? The headstones should be
returned to their graves."
Some, however, prefer to leave the park the way it is. Out for a recent
walk with his dog, Ventura resident Darryl Jag, 37, said he was unaware
of the park's history.
"A cemetery is kind of a waste of space," he said. "At
least with this you can come use it."