Joe German whacks his way with his cane through the brambles and dry brush toward his grandmother's grave.
"I remember this graveyard was just like a lawn," German says. He's 83, hearty, well-preserved and still a bit countrified. He's lived almost all his life in this little piece of Howard County near Ellicott City.
He's stomping through St. Mary's Cemetery, a Catholic burial ground now more than a century old. He's prowled through the old cemetery since he was a boy. Today, St. Mary's is overgrown with loose underbrush beneath a stand of poplar, walnut and a few locust.
St. Mary's is also surrounded by the new and pricey homes of Turf Valley Overlook. It's an isle of the dead among the living, a hint of the past of Howard County, a small reminder that life didn't begin yesterday in the middle of a neighborhood that didn't exist a few years ago.
Mary's Cemetery received the dead from the families of workers and servants and former slaves on the manors of Howard County, Doughoregan and Pine Orchard, and from St. Charles College, the "minor" seminary of the Maryland archdiocese, which burned down in 1911.
The graveyard now is threatened by a developer who proposes building, or selling the land for building, homes on two parcels that enclose the "existing cemetery." Neighbors -- and German -- say the two lots are also part of a much larger original burial ground and still contain graves.
The neighbors like the cemetery just fine the way it is. Twenty properties border the 3.21-acre plot and they say they were told it would remain forever undeveloped because of the cemetery.
hTC Banded together as Friends of St. Mary's Cemetery and Preservation SocietyInc., opponents of development researched old church burial records, hired a lawyer, fired off letters to the county executive and the department of public works, and stymied work at the cemetery.
James M. Irvin, Howard county DPW director, said development of public improvements to the lots should be held up until all gravesites had been identified and relocated "in accordance with the requirements of state law and the deed restrictions."
But Irvin later seemed to be contradicted by William R. Hymes, Howard state's attorney, who could find no legal impediment to bulldozing the cemetery, and Marsha McLaughlin, head of the county planning department, who approved the developer's proposal.
St. Mary's Cemetery gets its name from the private chapel at Doughoregan, the ancestral home of the Carroll family. Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the last signer of the Declaration of Independence to die, is buried in the chapel. Masses are still held there.
German lives across U.S. 40 from Turf Valley Overlook on Cemetery Lane, an extension of the easement which led into the old cemetery where his kinfolk are buried.
"I was born back here in a place . . . we called it 'up in the woods,' " he says. "Gran'pap built the college."
St. Charles College, that is.
"He maintained it after he built. He stayed there until the college burned down. They kept him 63 years and they wouldn't let him be buried here. He wasn't a Catholic. He was a Methodist."
Gran'pap's name was Joe German, too. He was a builder. His grandson's still a Methodist. And he's a stone mason who still works at his job. But usually not more than six hours a day anymore.
"My grandmother, she was Catholic," German says. "She was from Switzerland, I think."
He leads the way to her gravestone in the little cleared place he tries to keep neat.
Felice, beloved wife of Joseph German, the stone says. Died March 17, 1915. In the 57th year of her age. RIP.
L With her are buried six of her children who died as infants.
"L.B.," says German, reading off another stone, "that was my grandmother's mother. Her name was Bruneau. That's where she's buried."
And his brother who died in infancy is buried here somewhere, too.
"We keep this plot pretty much down, me and my cousin Charles [German]," German says. "We've got to get in here and take these briars out shortly, too."
The German plot is in what is described as the existing cemetery in a surveyor's plan submitted to the county health officer and planning and zoning. It's a 145-by-160-foot plot dadoed into Lot 2 on the 3.2-acre site.
Lot 1, Lot 2, and the "existing cemetery" front on Cemetery Lane, which right now is cut off by a metal gate at one end and dead-ends in a lawn at the other.
Sandra Pezzoli, one of the neighbors, researched church records for the Friends of St. Mary's at St. Louis Church, in Clarksville. St. Mary's is a mission of St. Louis Church. Burials are documented in St. Louis' Record of Interments in a variety of orotund Victorian script.
She found 143 burials recorded at St. Louis, one at St. Alphonsus in Woodstock and 22 undocumented burials. But only 48 tombstones (with 51 names) have been found. So 116 are unaccounted for. The Friends of St. Mary's believe they may well be scattered throughout the whole plot.
Church records indicate 33 blacks were buried at St. Mary's, but only five have been accounted for. Both the Friends of St. Mary's and Beulah Buckner, the secretary of the Howard county African American Genealogical Society, believe many blacks may have been buried in lost or unmarked graves.
"Sometimes they just put up a fieldstone," Buckner said. "Thecouldn't afford anything else."
Joe German leads the way to what is believed to be the olblack portion of the cemetery. He points out a few monuments, including one
of fieldstone. They're in a corner of the plot 175 to 200 feet from the "existing cemetery."
"I don't know how many are around here, to tell you the truth," he says. "I know it's more than them."
Beulah Buckner dug out three or four of the stones herself.
"I went out there to dig," she says. "I was determined to see whatever it was those stones were going to say, if I had to dig with my fingers. I got a stick and I dug down and dug down."
She found Elizabeth Dorsey's name.
"She died January 18, 1901, and her stone said she was 44," Buckner says. "She was down in what they called the 'colored' or slave section."
She found Harriet Hill's grave.
"Her stone says she died Oct. 15, 1913, aged 83," she says. "That makes her born in 1830. She was born in slavery, too."
Buckner would like to see a little park on the site.
"Put a bench or two in there," she says. "They don't have to desecrate the graves."
The Friends of St. Mary's would like to see the cemetery restored, too. The old graveyard seemed for a while to have a reprieve. Friends, relatives and descendants of the endangered dead in St. Mary's Cemetery would like to see it made permanent.