Just beyond the hubbub of tourists and motorists who converge on Main Street in historic Ellicott City, there's a quiet place. The 19th-century cemetery overgrown with weeds and dotted with blocks of crumbling sandstone goes almost unnoticed.
The deterioration probably would have continued tombstone by tombstone and the cemetery lost to encroaching development and vandalism if not for a group of eighth-graders from Patapsco Middle School.
The students have adopted the three- to four-acre site and are carefully restoring the cemetery, with its more than 100 gravestones.
The "adoption" officially began last year as Kathryn Potocki's class of gifted and talented eighth-grade social studies students searched for a research project.
While taking a tour of Howard County with local historian Joetta Cramm, they passed the cemetery. The students' curiosity about its history led to the selection of the graveyard as their research project.
Her current class inherited the project, which now involves all the school's eighth-graders.
In January, a dozen students got down to work. Armed with a map, plastic zip-locked baggies full of numbers to identify the tombstones and various camera equipment, they trudged through the cemetery.
At the suggestion of David Roberts, an area stone artisan who has volunteered to restore some of the grave stones, the students made a "photo documentation" of the cemetery, taking a picture of each stone in its present condition.
The stones date from 1841 to 1905. A student video camera crew also climbed up a ladder to record an overhead view of the cemetery.
Three trips, each involving two hours' worth of photography, enabled the students to construct a tabletop replica of the cemetery that will eventually be displayed in places like the Howard County Library.
"We had to figure out which tombstone was which; we put thenumbers next to the tomb as we took the pictures. Some of the stoneswere tilted and we had to get on the ground (to get the proper alignment)," said Kristin Midura, 13.
"I was surprised at how much the gravestones had been ignored," said Julie Kickham, 13, who described a large tree that had grown between a headstone and footstone.
Thestudents were even more surprised when they returned to the cemeteryafter a two-week period to discover that a gravestone had been destroyed by vandals.
"I was upset that someone would do that; I couldn't believe that people would find pleasure in destruction," said Kristin.
But vandalism is only one aspect of the learning process thathas been connected with this project.
"There are lots of steps involved," said Katie McGinn, 14. "At first, I thought we were going togo around the cemetery with garbage cans to straighten up."
"We found out there's more to it than that, like not getting arrested for trespassing," said Ron Roach, 13.
Among the group's first steps was to determine who owned the property in order to get permission to restore the cemetery. That research, done by Potocki's class last year, revealed that the cemetery belongs to St. Paul's Catholic Church inEllicott City.
It is believed that the site in the 1840s belongedto three "spinster" sisters. Potocki said records indicate that theyleft the property to a woman who took care of them, and that she then left it to the church. The woman's descendants live near the cemetery and will be interviewed by the students to obtain more information, Potocki said.
Meanwhile, there's still plenty of work to do, andthe effort will take several years. But Potocki believes it's not animpossible task.
"Our big goal this year is to obtain a historic marker sign for the cemetery," Potocki said. "We need to classify thestones as to which ones are in the most critical need of repair -- the cost can be from $50 to several hundred (per stone)." Potocki said.
The effort is being supported financially by the school out of adiscretionary fund, but Potocki hopes to organize an adopt-a-stone program in which local businesses could donate money for a particular stone's restoration.
"You don't need an enormous amount of money if each group has the will," she said.
She wants to involve the students in the legislative process of protecting cemeteries, and, ultimately, she would like the group to compile a book about the people buried there.
Since the students have been working among the stones,reading the inscriptions and learning about another place and time, it is obvious that they have acquired a connection with what used to be.
"Once you have been to the cemetery and you learn about what'sthere, when you go by other cemeteries, it turns on a different light," Kristen said.
"You learn that people who are buried there can't defend their graves," said 14-year-old Amanda Wallis.