Families Seek to Bring Cemetery Back to Life



Families Seek to Bring Cemetery Back to Life
The site, now a Ventura park, contains nearly 3,000 bodies.

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 interred.
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 in 1943.
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 use.
He has received help from several family members whose relatives are buried there.
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 cemetery.
"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 retrieve them.
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 other headstones.
"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 resting spot.
"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."

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