Volunteers work to restore little-known cemetery in Druid Hill Park

St. Paul's had become a weed-choked and vandalized burial site

July 08, 2011|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

For years, St. Paul's Cemetery, a Victorian city of the dead on a knoll in a remote corner of Druid Hill Park, was nothing more than a nearly forgotten, weed-choked, overgrown burial ground that had been subjected to mindless vandalism through the decades.

Today, it's brimming with new life as volunteers and members of Martini Lutheran Church man humming lawn mowers and screaming chainsaws as they cut grass and remove felled trees.

Their common goal is to restore the cemetery, which dates to 1854, to its former glory.

"The grass hadn't been cut for years, and it took us forever to get it cut back one-third of the way into the cemetery," said Sandy Harper, longtime Martini Lutheran Church member and historian, who wrote the recently published "The History of St. Paul's Cemetery," an illustrated monograph.

On a recent humid morning under threatening summer skies, Harper, joined by the Rev. Elliott Robertson, pastor of Martini Lutheran, proudly showed off their church members' handiwork.

"That's the way it was when we first started several years ago," she said. "We brought in dirt and planted grass. We got the fence repaired. A benefactor paid to re-create the iron gate that says 'St. Paul's.'"

"There has been a resurrection here in this cemetery," Robertson pointed out as he gingerly made his way around tombstones, some standing and many still on the ground in pieces.

Harper points out that it can cost $1,000 a day to have experts right and restore stones, and with money in short supply, it's up to volunteers who pour hours of sweat equity into maintaining and restoring the old burial ground.

For the moment, fallen grave markers and stones, many of which are elaborate examples of the Victorian stonecutter's art, are carefully collected and stored for future replacement.

The patron saint of St. Paul's Cemetery, who pushed for its restoration, was the indefatigable Betty Coulson — whose grandfather, the Rev. Dietrich H. Steffens, was pastor of Martini Lutheran from 1900 to 1918 and has rested there since 1944.

Coulson organized cleanups with younger church members pitching in at least once a month at volunteer work sessions.

When her husband, Harvey, died in 2006, it marked the first time an interment had taken place there since 1974. And when Coulson died in 2009, it was her wish that she spend eternity there in St. Paul's next to her husband.

The cemetery was established during a high-water mark of German immigration. Immigrants poured off steamers that sailed from Bremerhaven and docked at Locust Point, discharging their human cargo, anxious for a start life in the New World.

Eventually, it was these German immigrants and their families who would account for many of the more than 1,700 souls who sleep in its consecrated ground.

"Many buried here had battled tempest and wave across the Atlantic, foregoing ease and withstanding disease — all for the possibility of a new start in a strange land," wrote Robertson in the introduction to "St. Paul's Cemetery."

Originally, parishioners from three churches, St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church at Saratoga Street and Fremont Avenue, Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church on South Caroline Street, and Martini Lutheran at Henrietta and Sharp streets, shared the burying ground and the financial expense of its maintenance.

The cemetery was laid out five years before the city of Baltimore purchased the land that would eventually become today's Druid Hill Park.

When the land that became the park was purchased from Lloyd Nicholas Rogers, St. Paul's Cemetery was not a part of the purchase.

Its charter clearly stated that "blatant blasphemers" and "those living sinfully," "those who are guilty of vice in public life," and the "excommunicated" were unwelcomed and would simply have to go somewhere else.

"St. Paul's Cemetery was to be a place of waiting on the Lord, and also a place of faith in the Resurrection, where buried believers would be bodily raised, incorruptible, at the Archangel's shout and at the trumpet of God," wrote Robertson.

The cemetery's design — Gottesacker is German for graveyard — is that of a Roman cross, with a "heart or eternal circle" at its center, explained Robertson.

A family plot cost $15 and a single grave for a child younger than 14 was $2.

It was dedicated on Dec. 10, 1854, by the Rev. Ernest Keyl, as a choir sang "Jesus, Meine Zuversicht" ("Jesus My Confidence") and parishioners gathered under an oak tree in the heart of the cemetery.

The choir broke into a moving rendition of "Selig Sind De Toten" ("Blessed are the Dead") that left many in the crowd weeping, wrote Harper.

Keyl spoke. In his sermon, wrote Harper, he recited from Ezekiel 37 and First Corinthians.

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