Progress made in cleaning up St. Vincent Cemetery

It's been two years since some descendants began agitating for recognition and reverence for their ancestors' resting place in an unmarked, abandoned 7-acre cemetery surrounded by the Clifton Park golf course.

The group, the Friends of St. Vincent Cemetery, gave me its approximate location — on a small rise overlooking downtown Baltimore near the Belair Road side of the Northeast Baltimore park. When I initially explored the place two years ago, I found nothing but weeds and was about to give up and leave, when I spotted a few scattered granite headstones under a tangle of sumac.

In September 2010, the Friends made good on their initial resolve. They and the St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Parish in downtown Baltimore hired landscaper Fred Roussey and his crew to crosscut the tangle of heavy growth that obscured what was left of the cemetery, a resting place that had its last burial in the 1950s and suffered from vandalism before the headstones were bulldozed into piles in the 1980s. Roussey understood the plight and quoted a bargain price of $2,500. He did the job once and subsequently retired.

Cemeteries demand perpetual care or the weeds will have their way. I returned this late summer. While the results of two years worth of continued effort were not dramatic, I did see progress. An adjacent and city-owned Clifton Park maintenance barn, once used for recreational equestrian purposes, was cleaned up and getting a new roof. Tons of trash left by illegal dumpers were gone. There was a better fence, and security on the road leading to the area had been improved.

"It doesn't look perfect but it's a lot better than we had before," said Stephanie Arthur Town, a leader of the cemetery renewal movement.

I found there was progress that was not visible. In the past two years the Friends of St. Vincent's Cemetery received formal nonprofit status and accepted a grant from the Parks & People Foundation.

John Rowley, who coordinates the prison system's Public Safety Works program, sent a crew of prisoners to clean the place after they had devoted a major effort to clean and repair Mount Auburn Cemetery in Westport. This is a much larger burial ground, but it was also in ruins.

"The St. Vincent Cemetery is quite a unique situation," said Rowley, who plans to teach the prisoners masonry skills at the cemeteries.

The group held a spring cleanup in April. Volunteers from the Catholic High School of Baltimore and BGE spent that Saturday working. Another cleanup is planned for Oct. 6.

They have made friends with the Baltimore Municipal Golf Course personnel, who help with maintenance where the cemetery borders the fairways. They have also been welcomed for their meetings at the nearby Clifton Mansion, where the civic works program is located.

But more than weed-whacking, the preservationists are doing their homework. The cemetery's old records were a mess. It was not known how many people were buried on this hillside. They have now systematically identified 3,065 of those buried there, initially thought to be of German, Irish and Italian descent. But further research has shown there are African-American Roman Catholics buried there too.

"The work is slow, but our group is determined and the leadership perseveres in the face of obstacles," said Michael Lewis, who lives in San Francisco but is from a Baltimore family.

The group has identified Revolutionary, Union, Confederate and Spanish-American war veterans, as well as people such as William McGuire. He was identified in an 1899 Sun obituary as the "proprietor of the dining rooms in the rear of the Bank of Commerce" who died of double pneumonia.

"He was a member of St. Vincent de Paul Society and had charge of special work which required looking after prisoners in the jail and penitentiary and inmates of Bay View Asylum helping them start a good life," the obituary said. "To these he gave clothes and money and worked to secure employment for them. He gave them clothes from his own back and died without a complete suit of good clothes for his burial."

He too rests — anonymously — on the Clifton Park hillside.

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