5:08 PM EDT, May 23, 2014
Not quite four years ago, I began some trips to St. Vincent Cemetery, an old and abandoned burying ground largely surrounded by the Clifton Park Golf Course in Northeast Baltimore. In that summer of 2010, a small group of descendants of those buried there initiated a campaign to get the weeds and invasive trees cut down — and to win respect for the spot where nearly 3,700 people rest.
Last fall, a 15-year-old Dulaney High School sophomore from Lutherville, John Patrick Nolan III, stepped up. As his Eagle Scout project, he decided to improve the cemetery's condition. He worked weekends and enlisted help from his friends in Troop 711 — based in Lutherville — his parents and other Scout parents. Last month, a weekend volunteer work crew swelled to 62.
I was skeptical when I turned off a Clifton Park road a few days ago. Other well-intentioned cleansups had trimmed back the undergrowth, but each summer, weeds largely reclaimed the 7-acre cemetery, which has no walls and only a handful of surviving stone markers.
This time, I observed a different picture. I stood at the cemetery's edge and could see Belair Road and the downtown skyline in the distance. For the first time, I could see where a cemetery existed.
Nolan produced an amazing transformation. He walked me around and showed me where he's chain-sawed and whacked the tough thickets of trees that had invaded the place.
The cemetery, which was closed more than 30 years ago after numerous cases of vandalism, was one of several burying places in the vicinity. Laurel Cemetery, an African-American cemetery, disappeared entirely and was replaced by a shopping center. The Baltimore Hebrew Cemetery remains and is in excellent condition.
"I wanted to honor all the Irish people buried here," Nolan told me.
In doing so, he honors plenty more. Some of those buried here include Peter Storm, a Revolutionary War veteran, officer at Yorktown and volunteer at the Battle of Baltimore in 1814; John Keleher, a Union soldier and member of New York's Fighting 69th who died of wounds he suffered at the Battle of Antietam; and Francis Lawrence Burke, a Spanish-American War veteran buried here in 1911. There are other veterans here, including a number of Marylanders who served in the Confederate army.
"I estimated it would take 10 years to clean the cemetery. He did it in a winter and spring," said Stephanie Arthur Town, who is the president of the Friends of St. Vincent Cemetery.
She had received estimates from professional landscape firms that topped out at $60,000. Her group supplied Nolan and his Scouting friends with heavy equipment and chain saws. Town received a $10,000 grant from the Archdiocese of Baltimore and has hired Carroll Tree Service to dig out tree stumps and perform other landscaping and maintenance tasks.
Town said she was never discouraged. Every time she asked for help, she said, an outpouring of volunteers came out for cleanups, including members of the St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic parish, the church that established the cemetery in 1850 and remains its owner. She also received assistance from Baltimore Heritage, Civic Works (the group now reclaiming the Clifton Park mansion), the Hibernian Society of Baltimore and others.
"For every person who ignored me, 10 answered my calls," she said of her experience.
I asked Nolan what he learned from his labors here.
"Hard work," he said.
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