Restoring cemetery a sign of respect

Ventura County Star

By John T. Williams
July 3, 2005

Saint Mary's Cemetery on Poli Street in Ventura is the resting place of 3,000 Ventura County pioneers. Their markers were removed by the city in 1964. Along with the names of the pioneers, the name of the cemetery was nearly forgotten. The future of Saint Mary's Cemetery is again at stake. The embarrassing mistake of 1964 was made, but now it is our opportunity to correct that wrong. We need to see that the mistake is not perpetuated.

On May 18, the Ventura Parks and Recreation Commission presented the results of its limited cemetery survey. The results of the response were positive but fell short because most of the stakeholders were not solicited for comment and the survey questions were not directed at the true issue.

After the commission survey presentation, the testimony by citizens painfully illustrated that there are three major groups trying to direct the future of Saint Mary's Cemetery. They include the descendants of Ventura pioneers, who are cemetery supporters; the new Ventura residents, who are park supporters; and the Parks and Recreation Commission members, who are noncommittal leaders.

The descendants of the pioneers, along with many other longtime residents of Ventura County, want to restore the cemetery as much as is reasonably possible. The descendants group wants authentic recognition of the cemetery with respect and reverence for the 3,000 burial sites.

The descendants support re-marking the gravesites along with a sensible historic memorial commemorating Ventura County pioneers.

The second group is composed of the new residents of Ventura-park supporters group. They would accept a historic memorial wall at the "park." They want a midtown park, where children can play, joggers can jog and their dogs can run. The new resident-park supporters desire that this space be for recreation, with minimal recognition that this is a cemetery.

The Parks and Recreation Commission is collectively noncommittal and unwilling to forcefully recognize the historic significance of Saint Mary's Cemetery. It has been publicly unwilling to support the concept that this is an authentic cemetery, to enhance and publicize its inherent strengths, or to promote those strengths. It needs to realize and appreciate the historical, cultural and spiritual benefits to Ventura this special place has to offer. The commission has been nearly silent.

As a fifth-generation Ventura County descendant with many relatives buried at this cemetery, it is very disturbing that this issue is an issue. The issue is not if there are 2,200 or 3,000 buried. Nor is the issue whether or not the west end of the burial area really holds the remains of 300 nameless poor and Chumash. Nor is the issue whether the cemetery would be a good site for the historic Saticoy Church and a breast cancer center.

The issue is how do we, as a community, give proper respect and reverence to ourselves, so we are able to give proper respect and reverence to those who came before us? Do we respect ourselves enough as a community to learn from our pioneer ancestors as the story could be told at Saint Mary's Cemetery?

I believe we do.

It is my desire to see that Saint Mary's Cemetery is restored in a respectful and historic way. This is our opportunity to demonstrate to our children that Ventura is a community that remembers its pioneers and respects their resting place.

Lastly, Ventura needs to correct the wrong of 1964.

-- John T. Williams lives in Ventura.

Copyright 2005, Ventura County Star. All Rights Reserved.

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