Clearing of cemetery alarms neighborhood Group fears unmarked graves may be lost

June 28, 1992|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

Kathy Rebeck flinched each time one of the mature trees snapped in her Turf Valley Overlook neighborhood.

"Lord, I hate that sound," she said over the whine of bulldozers.

The sights and sounds of bulldozers clearing decades-old poplar and walnut trees in the middle of her neighborhood Thursday was cacophonous enough. But even more insulting, she said, was the fact that these trees are in the middle of what was St. Mary's Cemetery on Cemetery Lane.

Rebeck, who with about 35 of her neighbors formed the group Friends of St. Mary's Cemetery and Preservation Society, contend that there are bodies buried throughout a 3.21 acre parcel now being developed as two lots.

One of the lots now being cleared lists as selling for $115,000. The other, which includes ground that is to remain a cemetery, is priced at $135,000. If the buyer prefers, the developer will build a house on the first lot for a total cost, including the lot, of $284,900. The same deal for the second lot costs $294,900.

The society wants the bulldozers to stop clearing the property until all bodies have been accounted for. Members say they have sought to have the property surveyed, but have been denied access to the property. The property owner, H. Allen Becker, could not be reached for comment.

Society members sought help from police and an assistant state's attorney Thursday but were told none could be given unless the bulldozers unearth bones. Police and the assistant state's attorney said they told the bulldozer operators to be on the alert for bones, and to stop work if some were found.

What happens then, said Deputy Public Works Director Ronald G. Lepson, is that "the bones will be given to an undertaker and reinterred" elsewhere in accordance with the law.

"It will be done reverently and with sensitivity," Lepson said. "There will be no desecration."

Lepson said county officials will meet with society members this week to tell them that once work to bring water and sewer to the property begins, a Public Works inspector will be present at all times.

Society members say they are aghast that the water and sewer line is being dug at all. They have an April 26, 1991 letter from Public Works Director James M. Irvin, saying the county would "not allow the developer to start work on public improvements until the county is assured that no gravesites are located within the public easement."

Society members learned that the lots would be cleared two weeks ago when they saw surveying stakes lying next to two sunken headstones dating from the last century.

One half-buried headstone read "Mary, wife of H. W. Johnson." The other read "Arthur, died his seventh year, July 23, 1884," and "Thomas, born June 6, 1890, aged nine days." The headstones were in what members say is the black portion of the segregated cemetery.

At the other end of the 3.21 acre tract, are headstones and obelisks marking graves of some of the members of the German family. Buried there, says 84-year-old Joe German, are his brother, his grandmother, his great-grandmother, and two children.

German has been looking after the plot in recent years. Originally, it been cared for by Roman Catholic seminarians at St. Charles College. The seminary burned down in 1911. The Baltimore Archdiocese sold the property in 1987.

"How can this be?" asked society member Sandra Pezzoli. Pezzoli said that she had been taught in her Roman Catholic upbringing that gravesites are sacred. If the archdiocese could sell this one, how secure is her family plot in Ohio?, she asked.

Since the Friends of the St. Mary's Cemetery and Preservation Society formed in 1990, Pezzoli and others have discovered through church records and interviews with heirs that 167 persons were buried in the cemetery -- the last burial occurring in 1941.

Of the 167 burials, only 48 had headstones, Pezzoli says. She and other society members assume some people may have have been too poor to have headstones and that bodies may be buried throughout the property.

In addition to calling police, the State's Attorneys Office and public officials in the county Health Department and Public Works office, Pezzoli and neighbor Kory Stoeckle have been seeking help from the Baltimore Archdiocese.

The problem, they say, is that the diocese no longer owns the property. Diocesan attorneys did write county officials a letter June 15, however, saying "the uncertainty [of where gravesites are located] must be resolved."

Meanwhile, the bulldozers roll on and the snap of mature trees breaking continues.

"We were told to use video cameras" to record any evidence of bones unearthed by bulldozers, Pezzoli said. "Our file information is not enough. They said we need physical evidence. It's a sad commentary that gravesites are not protected by law."

"This is not about stopping development," said Rebeck. "After the trees come down, we'll still be talking about graves. Graves are sacred ground. We're still trying to get someone to explain why they were sold in the first place."

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