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A New Fence for Tolomato Cemetery

Tolomato Cemetery

Tolomato Cemetery – photo from the author’s collection at Flickr.

Tolomato Cemetery is one of the historic cemeteries in St. Augustine – our nation’s oldest city. It is a beautiful cemetery but it is currently surrounded by an ugly chain link and barbed wire fence. The cemetery’s preservation association is raising money to replace the ugly fence with a new one that is appropriate to the period while providing protection to the site. You can help by visiting the Tolomato Cemetery Preservation Association’s site and making a contribution to the effort.

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Tolomato Cemetery

Tolomato Cemetery sketch

Tolomato Cemetery sketch

Located on the site of an early Franciscan mission for local Indians, Tolomato Cemetery is one of St. Augustine’s historic cemeteries with graves dating back to the 18th century. During the British period a number of refugees from a failed settlement near New Smyrna arrived in St. Augustine. Being mostly Catholic, they needed a proper place to bury their dead. Father Pedro Camps, their priest, requested and was granted use of the old mission as a cemetery. It would remain a cemetery until 1884 when all cemeteries within the city limits were closed.

A Visitor’s Voice: Ralph Waldo Emerson

An overhead view of the Huguenot Cemetery.

An overhead view of the Huguenot Cemetery taken in the late 1880s – probably taken from a tower at the San Marco Hotel. Courtesy Florida Memory collection.

Ralph Waldo Emerson arrived in St. Augustine in January of 1827. He came here because the climate – especially in winter – was beneficial to his health. While here, he kept a journal recording his observations of the area and it’s people.

There are two graveyards in St. Augustine, one of the Catholics, another of the Protestants. Of the latter the whole fence is gone, having been purloined by these idle people for firewood. Of the former the fence has been blown down by some gale, but not a stick or board has been removed, — and they rot undisturbed such is the superstition of the thieves. I saw two Spaniards entering this enclosure, and observed that they both took off their hats in reverence of what is holy ground.

Sources:

Tolomato Cemetery

In 1777 a group of survivors from the failed New Smyrna colony arrived in St. Augustine. At the time, Florida was under British rule, but the majority of these survivors were Catholics of Minorcan ancestry with some Greek Orthodox also in the mix. Known collectively as the Minorcans, these people had their own priest who moved their parish from the Smyrna colony to their new home in St. Augustine.

The northern part of the town near the Castillo de San Marcos was largely uninhabited since the time the British took over the Florida territory from Spain. It was this part of the town that the Minorcans settled and began building a new life. During the first Spanish period, a Guale Indian village and Franciscan mission called Tolomato was located just outside of the town’s defenses next to this new Minorcan Quarter. When the British came, the Indians evacuated to Cuba along with the Spanish residents of St. Augustine. Father Camps, the Catholic priest who had served the Minorcans throughout their New Smyrna ordeal, petitioned the British governor to use the mission burial ground at Tolomato as a graveyard for this new Catholic parish in the middle of Anglican St. Augustine. His petition was granted.

Florida was returned to Spanish control at the end of the American Revolution in 1783. Although most of the British left the colony, the Minorcans chose to stay. Their make-shift parish church was soon replaced with a proper cathedral facing the town’s plaza as more priests arrived to minister to the growing colony. Tolomato Cemetery continued to support the community. Florida would change hands several more times – becoming a U.S. territory in 1821, a state in 1843, a part of the Confederacy in 1861 and finally a return to statehood. By the early 1880s, St. Augustine had grown substantially and Tolomato Cemetery was now surrounded by residences. In 1884, bowing to pressure from local citizens, the city passed a resolution closing both Tolomato and the Public Burying Ground (Huguenot Cemetery) located just a few blocks away.

Although officially closed, two more burials would take place here. Catalina Usina Llambias died in 1886 and her son granted her deathbed wish to be buried at Tolomato. In 1892, Robert Sabate was buried next to Mattie and Marcella Sabate. In both cases, family members were fined $25.00 for these illegal burials.

Tolomato Cemetery Рa sketch by Henry Shaw Wyllie

The mortuary chapel at the back of the cemetery contains the remains of Father Verot, the first Bishop of St. Augustine, who died in 1876. Father Camps died in 1790 and was buried here. Ten years later his remains were re-interred at the newly-built cathedral.

References:

  • Griffin, P. C. (1991). Mullet on the beach The Minorcans of Florida, 1768-1788. St. Augustine, Fla: St. Augustine Historical Society.
  • Quinn, J. (1975). Minorcans in Florida: Their history and heritage. St. Augustine: Mission Press.
  • Buker, G. E., & Waterbury, J. P. (1983). The Oldest city: St. Augustine, saga of survival. St. Augustine, Fla: St. Augustine Historical Society.
  • Harvey, K. (1992). America’s First City: St. Augustine’s Historic Neighborhoods. Lake Buena Vista, FL: Tailored Tours Publications.