Tag Archives: Catholic cemetery

Cemetery of the Week #173: the Crypt of Our Lady of the Angels

 

The Cathedral Mausoleum at Our Lady of the Angels
Also known as the Crypt of the LA Cathedral or the Saint Vibiana Chapel Mausoleum
Address: 555 West Temple Street, Los Angeles, California 90012
Phone: 213-680-5200
Dedicated: September 2002
Number interred: 395, according to Findagrave

Note: the Cathedral Mausoleum remains closed at the moment, due to Covid-19 restrictions. Please check the Cathedral’s website or call before you visit to make sure it’s reopened.

In 1996, the Diocese of Los Angeles chose a downtown parking lot overlooking the Hollywood Freeway as the site of its new cathedral. Named for the city’s namesake, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels was dedicated on September 2, 2002. It serves as the mother church to approximately five million professed Catholics in the archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Sealed into the floor around the altar are 26 relics, including Saints Benedict, Catherine of Sienna, Charles Lwanga, Elizabeth Ann Seton, Francis of Assisi, Gregory the Great, John Neumann, Martin de Porres, Patrick of Ireland, Rose of Lima, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha (the first Native American saint), and Junipero Serra, who founded the Spanish missions in California in the 18th century.

In the Chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe hangs a reliquary with a fragment of the cloak worn by Saint Juan Diego that was miraculously stamped with Mary’s image when she visited him. The postage stamp-sized relic may be the only one of its kind in the United States. It was given by the archbishop of Mexico City to the archbishop of Los Angeles in 1941.

In the Chapel of Saint Vibiana, in the crypt below the church, rest the bones of a third-century Christian martyr whose grave was discovered in the Pretestato Catacombs near Rome’s Appian Way in December 1853. The original grave was sealed with a marble tablet which was marked with a laurel wreath, which indicated she was a martyr for her faith. Also in the alcove was a rose-colored vial, believed to contain dried blood. Despite a lack of history or miracles, Pope Pius IX canonized her as a Roman-era Virgin in 1854.

Vibiana’s bones were encased in a wax effigy. Bishop Thaddeus Amat, charged with overseeing all of California south of Monterey, took her relics on an eight-month tour before they arrived in Santa Barbara. Sometime in the 1860s, her reliquary was installed in Los Angeles. The Italian Baroque cathedral of Saint Vibiana was dedicated in her name in 1871.

In the 1950s, the Vatican dropped Vibiana’s feast day from the liturgical calendar for lack of historical information. In 1976, her relics were removed from public view and entombed in a marble sarcophagus. In 1994, the Northridge Earthquake caused damage to her cathedral and the diocese of LA took the opportunity to build Our Lady of the Angels. Vibiana’s, which had been named a City Landmark in 1963, was deconsecrated and is now available for rent as a wedding venue.

The construction of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels was overseen by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, LA’s first native Angeleno archbishop, who was made a cardinal in 1991. A burial place is reserved for him in the crypt.

The Crypt Mausoleum of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels lies one floor beneath the cathedral itself. It can be reached via the stairway or elevators at the rear of the Cathedral Church. The mausoleum is surprisingly large, containing some 1300 interment “crypts” and 5000 cremation niches, most of them empty at this time. Its walls are faced with polished Spanish limestone, lit by alabaster sconces.

It features 16 large baroque revival stained glass windows and 9 lunettes, brought from the original St. Vibiana Cathedral. The windows were created by the Franz Mayer Company in Munich in the early 1920s and restored by Judson Studios before being placed in the crypt. Since they are underground, they are lit from behind.

In the crypt stands a chapel dedicated to St. Vibiana. The altar was refashioned from the marble altar of her cathedral. The brightly painted stations of the cross came from St. Basil Church in LA. A marble sarcophagus contains Vibiana’s bones, still in their wax effigy. A replica of the plaque that marked her original grave hangs nearby, inscribed “To the soul of the innocent and pure Vibiana.” She remains the patron saint of Los Angeles.

Buried in the Bishops’ Crypt are Thaddeus Amat y Brusi (the first Bishop of Los Angeles, who brought Vibiana’s relics to LA), John Cantwell (the first Archbishop of Los Angeles), Bishop Thomas James Conaty (who oversaw the restoration of the California missions in the early 20th century), Bishop Carl Anthony Fisher (the first Black bishop on the West Coast), James Francis McIntyre (the controversial second Archbishop of Los Angeles, who became a cardinal), Bishop Juan Alfredo Arzube (born in Ecuador), and John J. Ward (who served in the Vatican II discussions). Several of them had been buried at St. Vibiana’s Cathedral before being reinterred here.

Other bishops have cenotaphs to their memories, including Bishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany, who was sent to Northern California during the Gold Rush. He is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery Mausoleum in Colma, California, south of San Francisco.

The most famous person buried in the Crypt Mausoleum is actor Gregory Peck, best remembered for playing Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, for which he won an Academy Award. Peck was nominated five times for the Oscar and received the Academy’s humanitarian award in 1968. He served as president of the Motion Picture Academy and was active in the American Cancer Society, National Endowment for the Arts, and many other causes. He died in his sleep in 2003. He’s buried in the crypt beside his wife, philanthropist Veronique Peck, who followed him in 2012. Their epitaph crosses the front of both grave plaques. His says, “Together” and hers “Forever.”

Actress Joan Marlowe (born Gisela Goetten) was billed by Warner Bros. as “the most beautiful girl on the screen.” She appeared in the Rin Tin Tin movies, acted opposite John Barrymore in “Don Juan,” and played a recurring role in the “Our Gang” shorts as the teacher Miss Crabtree. She also appeared in the first Laurel and Hardy movie, “Pardon Us.” After she married in 1933, she stopped acting in films. Initially buried in San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Mission Hills, she was moved to the LA Cathedral crypt and interred behind the epitaph, “Help thy brother’s boat across and Lo! Thine own has reached the shore.”

Actress Helen Wagner was best known for playing Nancy Hughes in the soap opera “As the World Turns.” She spoke the first line on the show in 1956 and continued playing the part until a month before her death in 2010. She’s credited in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest-playing of a single role. Her husband, producer Robert Wiley, is also buried in the Cathedral Mausoleum.

Buried near the papal cross beneath the cathedral’s altar is Bernardine Murphy Donohue, who was rewarded for her Catholic philanthropy by being made a papal countess by Pope John XXIII. After her death, her family’s mansion was donated to the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary as a retreat house.

Useful Links:
Map to the cathedral: https://catholiccm.org/cathedral-of-our-lady-of-the-angels-mausoleum
The Cathedral Mausoleum: http://www.olacathedral.org/cathedral/mausoleum/about1.html
The Cathedral homepage: http://www.olacathedral.org/
LA Time article “The Crypts that Keep on Giving”: https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2002-feb-08-mn-26916-story.html
Findagrave: https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/1543836/cathedral-of-our-lady-of-the-angels

My reviews of books related to this cemetery:

Laid to Rest in California: https://cemeterytravel.com/2011/05/05/cemeteries-paparazzi-style/

The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels guidebook: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/3908630237

Other graveyards of the Hollywood stars on Cemetery Travel:

Cemetery of the Week #5: Hollywood Forever

Cemetery of the Week #14: the Original Forest Lawn

Cemetery of the Week #40: Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery

Cemetery of the Week #45: Hillside Memorial Park

Cemetery of the Week #51: Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery

Cemetery of the Week #110: Holy Cross Cemetery

Death’s Garden: Tombstone Tales

Mackinac001

Fort Mackinac Post Cemetery

by Loren Rhoads

Just north of Michigan’s lower peninsula lies Mackinac Island, the #1 tourist destination in the state. When I was a kid, my folks took me and my brother up several times to explore the old fort—complete with costumed soldiers doing marching drills and cannons fired out over the water—and a museum dedicated to a doctor who had studied digestion through another man’s abdominal war wound. We loved it.

In 1898, the island banned motorized traffic, so the chief modes of transportation remain bicycles and horses. Horse-drawn taxis deliver tourists from the ferry docks to their hotels. Horse-drawn tour buses circle the island, lecturing about the island’s native history, the time it served as a hub in the fur trade, and the two battles fought on its soil during the War of 1812. Since those exciting days, Mackinac Island has become a quiet, relaxing retreat, where life moves at a slower pace.

I hadn’t been up to the island in twenty years when my mom suggested a trip. My parents and I reached the Mackinac (pronounced mack-in-naw) Island Visitors Center ten minutes before it closed for the afternoon. Mom asked if they offered the night tour of the village, led by a schoolteacher, which she’d taken on a previous visit. The answer was no. Not missing a beat, Mom asked, “Is there a tour of the graveyard?”

I couldn’t have been prouder of her for thinking to ask. Lucky me: there was a one-time cemetery tour. Tickets were ten dollars. I would have happily paid for Mom and Dad to join me, but they didn’t seem inclined. It was hard to decide to go alone, since the tour didn’t start until dusk and I wasn’t all that familiar with the island, but I really wanted to take a night tour—my first—of a cemetery. I bought an advance ticket, so that the tour wouldn’t be called off for lack of interest.

As the afternoon wore on, I grew progressively more anxious. I don’t like to explore unfamiliar places alone. Fifteen years earlier, I was attacked by a man my university had on suicide watch. He grabbed me in a busy hallway in my dorm as I walked with a girlfriend. Since then, my sense of safety requires the presence of other people. I have no illusion that just being with them would stop an attack—but maybe, like the last time, they could chase down my assailant. Still, my parents had no desire to climb to the top of the island to reach the cemeteries. If I went, I would have to go alone.

After dinner, I walked my parents back to the hotel to get Mom’s umbrella. They planned to stroll through the village and watch the sunset, but rain clouds threatened from the north. We said our goodbyes and I marched off like I wasn’t a coward.

My heart thudded in my chest as I climbed steep Bogan Lane. The street dead-ended at a wooden staircase that led upward for more stories than I could count. I wouldn’t have chosen such an isolated path, but I didn’t have time to find another way up the bluff to the cemetery. I paused at the foot of the stairway, trying to calm down. I would be safe, of course. This was an island. No one would dare molest me because they’d have no way to escape. The ferries stopped running at sunset.

Unless they owned a boat, I thought, realizing that it would look suspicious to sail away after dark.

It crossed my mind that I could just eat the ticket price, go into “town,” and have a drink somewhere until I could slink back to the hotel. Mom and Dad need never know that I was afraid to wander the island alone. All the same, I really, really wanted to attend the graveyard tour.

I would be safe, I promised myself, then started upward. Trees shadowing the stairs made them feel enclosed. Even though I didn’t pass a soul as I climbed, I couldn’t allow myself to pause and rest. When I reached the top of the staircase, my knees quivered.

A handful of mansions lined a paved street that stretched off to my right. I’d expected to find a bench at the summit, where I might catch my breath and load film into my camera. There wasn’t anywhere to sit. I guess the locals didn’t want tourists loitering in front of their houses. An old-fashioned street lamp stood there, so I knew I’d have at least one light on the walk back. I checked my backpack to be sure I’d brought my mini flashlight.

The path turned left, into the forest. I felt like I should leave a trail of breadcrumbs, so I could find my way back after dark. The lonely road dwindled to what seemed like a bike path between the trees. My nerves twanged again. I wished my sixty-year-old parents had come along, although my dad could never have made the climb.

I’d left the island map with Dad, but remembered that I wanted Garrison Road. When I reached the path that ran behind the fort, I found a sign pointing to the cemeteries half a mile away. Cemeteries, plural, I noted with excitement. I picked up my pace. I didn’t have any sense how long I take to walk half a mile. Usually distances aren’t so carefully measured for me. I hustled, since the ticket said the tour started at 7:30, instead of the 8 p.m. printed on the flyer I’d cajoled out of the clerk at the Visitors Center.

Rhoads_StAnn_horsesI reached Sainte Anne’s Cemetery first. Its stone gates opened on the left side of Garrison Road, where a sign forbade riding horses in the graveyard. It struck me as sad that tourists needed to be asked to behave.

I stopped in the shadows at the side of the road to load my Pentax K-1000. My watch said 7:15. I felt sticky in the August humidity, even in a T-shirt. My hands shook as I tried to thread the film. The light was fading, but I thought if I hurried, I might be able to take some pictures with the aperture dialed all the way open. Hopefully I could hold steady enough, once I calmed down.

Mosquitoes whined around my ears. I needed to get some bug lotion on fast. While I slicked myself up, a couple of costumed players wandered by, discussing whether they would have sex. The woman asked cheerily if I could share some “bug juice.”

After I gave her a handful of lotion, I ducked into the Catholic cemetery. Sainte Anne’s sprawled across an irregularly shaped piece of land, bounded by the curves of Garrison Road on the north. The oldest graves seemed to lie on the Garrison side. I didn’t see any angels, but lots of stones dated from the last half of the 19th century. I knew they must have been ordered and shipped from the “mainland,” so finding them was a nice surprise.

As the afternoon light failed, the colors looked very strange. Everything took on a yellowy pallor as the setting sun tinged the overcast. I attached my huge flash and tested it a couple of times, but it took forever to recharge. I hoped my battery would last. If only I’d come prepared for this, instead of rushing around. I wondered if I could settle down enough, once the tour began, to enjoy myself.

I watched people come into the Catholic Cemetery, then climb over its low fieldstone wall to get out, rather than backtrack to a gate. Probably these were same people who needed to be told not to ride their horses through the graveyard.

About 7:30 I crossed Garrison Road to the Post Cemetery. The burial ground lay in a slight depression, surrounded by a white picket fence. Even though summer hadn’t ended yet, a tree inside the graveyard blazed orange. Regulation military headstones stood at attention in straight lines, joined by a variety of other sorts of tombstones. I liked seeing a military cemetery with personality.

My camera crapped out. It was too dark to figure out if the battery had died or if I’d screwed up loading the film. One more reason to switch to a digital, I thought. Scowling, I put the heavy Pentax into my backpack. I’d have to come back in the daylight, if I wanted photographs.

I needn’t have worried about the tour being cancelled. People kept arriving on foot and by horse-drawn taxi until eventually sixty people clustered around. The organizers split us up. My group of fifteen went off with a good-looking college boy named Brian.

Rather than touring just the Post Cemetery, we saw all three graveyards. My group started in the Protestant Cemetery, the farthest one west and the most recently opened. Oaks, pines, and beeches separated the Protestants from the military graveyard. A low wall of openwork stone, pierced like lace, surrounded their graves.

Fragrant with cedar and pine, the Protestant Cemetery was one of the best smelling graveyards I’ve visited. I had to watch my step as acorns rolled under my feet.

The first grave we visited belonged to the man who’d made Mackinac Island a nationally recognized resort. An actor with a silver mustache and a long black coat played Eugene Sullivan, social director for the Grand Hotel, who reminisced about his boss, Jimmy “the Comet” Hayes. James R. Hayes had managed the Grand Hotel during the Victorian era. He decided that Michigan alone couldn’t support the hotel, so he courted the wealthy of Chicago. When he heard Theodore Roosevelt planned to tour the country, Hayes invited the President to be a guest of the hotel. Before Roosevelt could decline, Hayes wrote all the major Midwestern newspapers to announce the President’s visit. Roosevelt never came, but the press attention cemented the hotel’s reputation.

I knew from the flyer that there would be costumed characters on the tour, but I liked that they didn’t play the dead people at our feet. Instead, actors played friends and family reminiscing about the dead.

One of my favorite stories in the Protestant Cemetery regarded William Marshall, Mackinac Island’s longest serving soldier. During the Civil War, Marshall manned the fort alone, guarding three soldiers from Tennessee imprisoned there. When his term of service expired, he reenlisted himself.

mackinacOur tour group returned to the Post Cemetery, where interments may have begun in the mid-1820s. Records show that forty American soldiers died at the fort between 1796 and 1835, but only a dozen graves remained marked in 1835. Those who fell during the War of 1812 probably still lie under the Wawashkamo Golf Course, where the British buried them.

I halted beside by the lamb sleeping atop the monument for William A. and Frank M., sons of William and Matilda Marshall, aged “2 years, 4 months, 9 days” and “2 years, 3 months.” While it’s rare for wives to be allowed burial in military cemeteries, I don’t think I’d ever seen children buried amidst the soldiers. Their presence testified to the isolation of inhabitants of the island. Their epitaph made me sad: “Short pain, short grief, dear babes were they, now joys, eternal and divine.”

The last military funeral on the island celebrated Private Coon Walters in 1891. Four years later, the US Army abandoned Fort Mackinac, leaving behind the military burial ground. The cemetery fell into disrepair until the Mackinac Island State Park Commission began maintenance in 1905.

Rhoads_StAnn_handsThe final graveyard on our tour was Saint Ann’s, where I’d begun the evening. The cemetery had originally been called Bonny Brae, or goodly meadows. It contained older graves moved up from the first Catholic cemetery on Hoban and Market Streets, just north of the Village Inn restaurant, where I’d had dinner with my folks. That earlier cemetery, created in 1779, had filled to capacity before being disassembled.

Another ghost evoked by the tour was Matthew Geary, an Irish immigrant who became a government fish inspector and made his fortune. He was remembered by Jim Union, a cooper, who had a “wooden marker because he couldn’t afford a stone like Mr. Geary.” Coopers made barrels to crate up whitefish to ship to Chicago. Their necessary labor didn’t pay as well as the bribery fishing captains could offer the inspectors. Union’s grave, now unmarked, had been the first in Sainte Anne’s Cemetery in 1852.

When the graveyard tour ended, people drifted uncertainly off into the twilight. I’d hoped to meet some nice women with whom I could walk back to town, but the tour had been such a whirlwind that there hadn’t been time to speak to anyone else. The group simply hustled from actor to actor, heard the stories of the people whose graves we clustered around, and rushed on.

I still didn’t have a map of the island. I suspected that I could walk down past the fort and into the village below by following someone, but I wondered if I’d remember which street my hotel was on if I came at it from that direction. Better to go back the way I’d come.

I trailed a French Canadian couple down the road that wound past the back of Fort Mackinac. The fortifications glowed ghostly bluish white in the half-light. Oak branches strained toward the path, trying to close out the darkening sky.

When we reached the row of mansions at the crest of the hill, the French Canadians turned left, leaving me to face the staircase alone. Down is always preferable to up, but I stood at the landing, looking out over the village below. Old-fashioned streetlights twinkled in the darkness. The breeze carried me a breath of laughter. Somewhere, a dog barked. Other than that, the lack of automobiles on the island made for a kind of quiet that I’d forgotten existed.

I felt more peaceful now. I didn’t mind being completely alone in this strange place—and I felt entirely alone in the quiet darkness. I’d been calmed by exploring the graveyards. Nothing bad had ever happened to me in a cemetery, I realized. I’d always felt safe there.

A guttural engine revved up as the last ferry chugged out of the harbor. Once the boat left, we were trapped on the island for the night.

The wind blew colder, raising goosebumps over my humid skin.

Time to climb down.

This essay is excerpted from Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel, now back in print in paperback — with the ebook soon to come!

***

mercy-street (1)Loren Rhoads is the author of 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die and Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery TravelShe was the editor of the original anthology called Death’s Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries.

***

Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

I am starting up the Death’s Garden project again. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, please get in touch. I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.

Cemetery of the Week #160: St. Ann’s Cemetery

Rhoads_StAnn_gateSaint Ann’s Cemetery
also called Sainte Anne’s Cemetery or the Catholic Cemetery
Garrison Road & Custer Street
Mackinac State Park
Mackinac Island, Michigan 49757
GPS: Lat: 45° 51′ 29″N, Lon: 84° 37′ 16″W
Founded: early 1850s
Size: 2 acres
Number of interments: approximately 1000
Open: Daily from sunrise to sunset
Information: Ste. Anne Catholic Church, PO Box 537, Mackinac Island, MI 49757

North of Michigan’s lower peninsula lies an island 8 miles in diameter. The local native tribes used it as a burial ground. Since it lies at the Straits of Mackinac between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, the French based fur trading operations there. The British occupied Mackinac Island during the Revolutionary War and built a fort. After the War of 1812, the island came under American control, was minimally staffed during the Civil War, and eventually became a resort for the wealthy of Detroit and Chicago.

Rhoads_StAnn_horsesMotorized vehicles were banned on Mackinac Island in 1898, so to this day the chief modes of transportation are bicycles and horses.  The island, with its restored fort, livery stables, and fudge shops, is the #1 tourist attraction in Michigan.

Originally, Mackinac Island had only a Catholic burial ground, set up by French fur traders in 1779. That graveyard lay down near Sainte Anne’s Church, close to the water. For nearly a century, Mackinac Island simply had no Protestant community. Not until the fishing industry began in earnest toward the end of the 1800s did Calvinist missionaries come to preach to the fishermen and convert the natives.

Eventually that original Catholic cemetery filled to capacity. As early as 1852, islanders buried their dead on military reserve land near the Post Cemetery behind the fort. This was one of the few areas on the rocky island where the topsoil was deep enough to dig graves.

By the 1880s, most bodies from the first Catholic cemetery had been moved to Saint Ann’s. Not all the graves were transferred, however. Several stray headstones have been discovered in the weeds in town over the years. One now resides in the village museum. The site of that original Catholic cemetery, on Hoban and Market Streets, is prime land in the village now.

This newer Saint Ann’s Cemetery sprawls across an irregularly shaped piece of land, bounded by the curves of Garrison Road on the north and Custer Street on the west. The oldest graves lie on the Garrison side. Lots of stones date from the last half of the 19th century. They were ordered and shipped from the “mainland,” as islanders call Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.

Rhoads_StAnn_BiddleThe oldest marked grave in Saint Ann’s Cemetery belongs to 8-year-old Mary Biddle, who died after falling through the ice in December 1833. Her parents, Edward and Agatha Biddle, paid for a stone carved by W. E. Peters in Detroit (he signed his work) to mark her grave, which had been moved from the earlier cemetery. Her father Edward, who served as the village president, was buried in the Post Cemetery across the road.

Mary’s epitaph sums up the brevity of many children’s lives at the time:
“As the sweet flower that scents the morn
but withers in the rising day,
Thus lovely was this infant’s dawn,
Thus swiftly fled its life away.”

Rhoads_StAnn_GraveraetAlso buried in the cemetery is Lieutenant G. A. Graveraet, a 22-year-old who oversaw Confederate prisoners of war at Camp Douglas, the notoriously unsanitary camp near Chicago, before leading the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters Company K into battle at Spotsylvania. His tombstone says he died in Washington of wounds received before Petersburg. Sharing his monument is 1st Sgt. Henry G. Graveraet, 57, one of the “boys” in Company K, who died in the battle. Henry was G.A.’s father and died under his command.

In Summer 2011, a place in Saint Ann’s Cemetery was set aside for the burial of bones repatriated to the Sault Sainte Marie Chippewa by the Smithsonian Institution.

Later that year, when the foundation for a new hotel was being excavated at the site of the old cemetery in town, human remains were uncovered.  Although no anthropological analysis seems to have been performed, the bones were considered Native American. Since the Chippewa believe that the body has two souls — one that travels to the land of the dead and one that remains with the body forever, soaking into the soil — they believe the soil surrounding the bones should be preserved with the same respect as a body.

Because of that, a dumptruck was brought to the island.  It was filled with earth and a jumble of bones and unloaded in the Catholic cemetery, where a turtle mound has since been built. Nearby a totem pole was erected, along with a sign reading “Jiibay Gitigaan” in Ojibwa, which translates to “Spirit Garden.”  The turtle mound has 13 sections, for the 13 moons of the year celebrated by the Ojibwa.

Useful links:

The Fort Mackinac Post Cemetery on Cemetery Travel

More information on rhe oldest grave in St. Ann’s

Sainte Anne’s continues to be an active church on Mackinac Island

Remains discovered in 2012 were buried in the Catholic cemetery

More information on the turtle mound memorial

Cemetery of the Week #127: St. Roch Cemetery

Vintage postcard of St. Roch's Cemetery, dated 1915.

Vintage postcard of St. Roch’s Cemetery, dated 1915.

St. Roch Campo Santo
1725 St. Roch Avenue, New Orleans, Louisiana 70117
Telephone: (504) 304-0576
Founded: 1872
Size: Two square blocks
Number of interments: Unknown, due to the reuse of graves.
Open: Weekdays 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed weekends. (Call to confirm the hours before you visit. They seem to have changed recently.)

As with any cemetery in New Orleans, be aware of your surroundings when you visit.

St. Roch (also Rock or Rocco) was born to a rich merchant family in the Middle Ages. Sources disagree about whether he was born in the 13th century or 14th. He spent much of his life on pilgrimages. During one of these, he caught the black plague, but when he went alone into the woods to die, he was fed by a dog. After that, he could cure plague sufferers.

His cult ebbed and flowed in Europe until it was revived in the 19th century after the devastating outbreaks of cholera. When parishioners survived a yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans in 1868, Father Peter Leonard Thevis attributed their survival to the intercession of St. Roch. German-born Father Thevis vowed to build a chapel to St. Roch. This was completed in August 1876. Father Thevis is buried under the floor in front of the altar.

To the right of the chapel stands an Ex-Voto Room full of silver hands, feet, legs, and other body parts, as well as crutches and eye glasses, a testament to cures attributed to the saint.

One of the most famous monuments in the cemetery looks like a grave but is actually an ex-voto imported from Italy by a mother grateful for the health of her little girl. It shows a little girl lying on her back with her hands folded around a wreath of flowers.

The main gate to the cemetery, on St. Roch Avenue, combines Gothic Revival gatehouses with Egyptian Revival pylons crowned with statues. Between these stand a lovely ornate wrought-iron gate that labels the cemetery a campo santo, literally a holy field, but traditionally the Spanish for burial ground. Apparently, it’s named for the Campo Santo dei Tedeschi in the Vatican.

St. Roch Cemetery is surrounded by oven vaults, like the other cemeteries of New Orleans. These vaults are occupied of a year and a day, long enough for the New Orleans heat to dissolve their contents. Whatever is left is then pushed backward into a central caveau where all the remains are mixed together. The niche itself will be reused. This provides lower cost burial than the family tombs or ground burial also practiced in St. Roch.

A second section was added to the cemetery in 1895 when St. Michael’s chapel-tomb was built. The structure, with flying arches, had fallen into disrepair as early as the 1920s, but it has been restored.

New Orleans Architecture, volume III: The Cemeteries says that the cemetery will soon be full. I don’t know if that statement dates to the initial publication of the book in 1974 or to its re-release in 1997.

Vintage postcard of St. Roch Cemetery

Vintage postcard of St. Roch Cemetery

One of my vintage postcards has this to say: “Few who visit New Orleans fail to visit St. Roch’s with its unusual above-ground burial niches, like pigeon holes in the wall that surrounds the cemetery, and its romantic Shrine in the center, with storied charm for bringing love to girls who pray therein after visiting nine churches.”

The nine churches are visited on Good Friday, culminating in St. Roch’s Cemetery at 3 p.m., the time Christ is believed to have died. New Orleans Cemeteries: Life in the Cities of the Dead said that some girls put a pebble or a bean in their shoes so that the pilgrimage would be more of a penance.

Useful links:

The history of the German immigrant parish

Map and listing on Lonely Planet

Video interview with the sexton of St. Roch in the 1980s

Lovely pictures of the ex-votos

Other New Orleans cemeteries on Cemetery Travel:

Week #6: St. Louis #1

Week #16: Metairie Cemetery

Week #77: Lafayette Cemetery #1

Week #97: Greenwood Cemetery

New Orleans cemetery books reviewed on Cemetery Travel:

New Orleans Cemeteries (Images of America)

New Orleans Cemeteries: Life in the Cities of the Dead

New Orleans Architecture vol. 3: the Cemeteries

Weekly Photo Challenge: Color

St. Mary's Cemetery, Oakland, California

St. Mary’s Cemetery, Oakland, California

Tonight is my mom’s last night in San Francisco, so I’m going to hold off on writing this week’s Cemetery of the Week until tomorrow.  I have a plan, but it requires research to do it justice.

Instead, I offer this photo, taken last January, while I roamed around Oakland, California with my friend Dorian.  The picture serves as my desktop background.  I love it because it combines the complicated blue of the sky with many shades of green and the various colors of stone.

Of all the elements in a graveyard, I’d say the colors are my favorite.  There is something so restful about the combination of sky and foliage, whether it’s the deep verdant lawns in Michigan or the golden meadows of the California coast beneath the spectrum of white that makes up clouds or the unbroken cerulean of sky that stretches from horizon to horizon.  Sky blue is my favorite color, but emerald green is a very close second.

Of course, I love this photo because it captures the steepness of St. Mary’s Cemetery and the crazy lean of the old stones.  It’s not often that I can sum a cemetery up in one photograph, but this one does a good job of capturing St. Mary’s, which lies beside the wealthier and better known Mountain View Cemetery at the end of Piedmont Avenue.

Some cemeteries don’t need their own Cemetery of the Week to be enjoyable.  This one is lovely and worth a visit, if only to absorb the colors of sun and sky and stone.