A new group hopes to bring back dignity to a 140-year-old cemetery that holds the remains of some of Tampa and Ybor City’s early leaders.
The Friends of St. Louis Cemetery is working to restore and preserve the Catholic cemetery, just north of downtown and adjacent to the Oaklawn Cemetery. Through the years, the place has been vandalized and suffered the natural weather elements — thus markers have been toppled and destroyed.
“One by one we want to be putting the family plots back on their feet,” said Jim Rossman, Sacred Heart Church’s director of stewardship, to a group of 20 volunteers at a recent planning meeting. “We don’t want to be do-gooders and do more damage than good. We want to do it right.”
That plan includes funding the five-year project; hiring contractors for work such as tree trimming and creating driveways that cannot be done by volunteers; rebuilding the historical record, as much was lost in a fire; coordinating with other preservation groups; restoring family gravesites; and providing for continuous care.
The cemetery was created in 1874 through a donation of land by the Leonardi family. Through the years, it was used for pioneer priests and families in the area. Vicente Martinez-Ybor, who brought the cigar industry to Tampa, is buried there. So is Cecilia Morse, the founder of St. Anthony of Padua School. It has 130 family plots with more than 300 bodies buried. A few spaces remain.
The idea for the project began with the burial of Sacred Heart parishioner Cindy Batson in January 2013.
“That was the first time many knew it even existed — or had been there,” Rossman said.
“Many of us who attended her burial service were awed by the history and saddened by the poor condition of this holy place,” states an article in the church’s Aug. 3 bulletin to recruit members for the new group.
Following her service, a group of parishioners had an April 2013 cleanup of removing litter and debris. They began talking about what could be done and getting prices on professional tree trimmings.
They joined forces earlier this year with volunteers from other parishes to design and replace the roof of the coffin storage building on the property.
Cindy Batson’s widower, Bob, attended the Aug. 5 meeting and complimented Rossman on an “excellent presentation,” which included a slide show and a packet of materials including an outline of needs, resources available, a volunteer form and a timeline to have the full plan detailed by Nov. 3.
“It seems to me that the city would value this from a historical presentation,” Bob Batson said.
Rossman said he is scheduled to make a presentation to the city of Tampa historic committee Friday.
He said he also had been in contact with preservation groups about applying for grants.
A local attorney offered his services to apply for nonprofit status for the group so it could apply for the grants and raise matching funds.
To join the Friends of St. Louis Cemetery, call Rossman at (813) 431-8366.