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A City’s History Writ Small, In One Cemetery

Filed by KOSU News in US News.
July 10, 2012

On Florida’s northeast coast, trams filled with families and school groups run constantly in St. Augustine, hitting nearly all of the old city’s historic sites.

But down a side street lies an important piece of St. Augustine’s history most visitors don’t see, because it’s only open one day a month.

“This is Tolomato Cemetery. It was formerly the parish cemetery for what is now the cathedral parish,” says Elizabeth Gessner, who heads the cemetery’s preservation association.

Tolomato is a Catholic cemetery, still owned by the St. Augustine Diocese. And before it was a graveyard, the site was a home to Indians who moved there from an area in Georgia they called Tolomato.

Gessner says they gave that name to their new village.

“The Spanish described it as Pueblo de Indios de Tolomato — the Indian village of Tolomato,” she says. “And they had a chapel back there, and a four-story stone bell tower.”

The chapel and bell tower are gone now. In their place is a peaceful spot where old marble headstones are overshadowed by Spanish-moss draped oaks and cypress trees.

St. Augustine’s history encompasses many peoples and cultures. The Indians gave way to the first wave of Spanish soldiers and settlers. After the French and Indian War, the British took over until the American Revolution, when Florida returned to Spanish rule.

Preservation Association member Nick McAuliffe says all that history is reflected at Tolomato Cemetery.

“It’s sort of, kind of a history of St. Augustine writ small — or writ in one spot,” he says.

Recently, the Daughters of the American Revolution installed a marker commemorating Revolutionary War patriot Don Juan McQueen. Once a friend and confidante of George Washington, he later became bankrupt and fled from his home in South Carolina to St. Augustine.

The exact location of McQueen’s grave is unknown; Gessner suggested to a D.A.R. member that the marker be placed in an out-of-the-way spot. As it happens, it was not far from that of another person important to St. Augustine’s history during the Spanish period: a Catalan-speaking Irish priest named Father Miguel O’Reilly.

“And she said, ‘Oh, but they used to play checkers together,’” Gessner says. “So, sure enough, Don Juan McQueen and Fr. Miguel O’Reilly actually were friends. And they’d just sort of smoke their pipes, play checkers and discuss local politics. So we thought, what better place?”

But one person dominates both the history and the grounds at Tolomato — Father Felix Varela, an important figure in Cuba’s drive for independence in the 19th century.

After leaving Cuba, Varela founded America’s first Spanish-language newspaper in New York. He published articles on human rights, Cuban independence, and the abolition of slavery.

Varela came to St. Augustine when he retired. And that’s where he died and was buried.

“This is the Varela chapel,” Elizabeth Gessner says. “Father Varela died in 1853. This pretty little marker here commemorates it.”

Nearly 60 years later, after Cuba became independent, Varela’s bones were moved to Havana. But pilgrims still visit his chapel here in St. Augustine. Father Varela is now a candidate for sainthood in the Catholic Church. The Vatican recently declared him “venerable” — a step along the way.

With all the layers of history here Gessner says Tolomato cemetery is also popular with St. Augustine’s ghost tours

“I am surprised, though, when we get visitors here who will come in and say, “Well, you know, I’ve heard the ghost of so and so is out there, of some little boy or something,’” Gessner says. “I always tell them, we have nothing but happy dead here.”

It’s a beautiful spot, a well tended cemetery and they receive regular visits. What more Gessner asks, could their residents want? [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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