TAMPA — Cindy Batson fell in love the first time she saw it.
“I want to be buried here!” she said to her husband, Bob, when she discovered St. Louis Cemetery in downtown Tampa on a walking tour.
She loved its rich history and giant Spanish oaks draped in moss. It’s the oldest Catholic cemetery on the west coast of Florida.
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, surrounded by five of her six children. It’s home to pirates, slaves and five pioneer priests, including three who died in the yellow fever epidemic that devastated the city in 1887 and 1888.
“There are so many great stories on this property,” says the Rev. Len Plazewski, a history buff and pastor at Christ the King Parish in Tampa. He was so intrigued with it that he included the cemetery as a “must visit” on his 25 pilgrimage sites to visit in the five-county Diocese of St. Petersburg.
“St. Louis is a beautiful gem. You can’t take places like this for granted, because the people who are here are such an important part of our past.”
Despite some of its prominent residents and its proximity to downtown — it’s located right across from the Greyhound bus terminal, on the northern part of the city-owned Oaklawn Cemetery — this 1-acre Catholic graveyard doesn’t get much attention.
That is, until Cindy Batson decided this is where she wanted to be.
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A few years later, on Jan. 17, 2013, mourners gathered at Cindy’s final resting place under one of those old oak trees.
The mother of two grown children, married 46 years to Bob, lost a short battle with cancer. She was just 70.
Jim Rossman, a fellow parishioner at Tampa’s Sacred Heart Catholic Church, where the Batsons belonged, was among the family and friends who came to pay their respects. He looked around the decaying cemetery, with its rusted wrought-iron fences and knocked-over markers, and could only think one thing:
This just isn’t right.
“It’s part of our Catholic heritage,” he says. “Yet it seemed a little forgotten.”
The cemetery was founded in 1874 on land donated by the Leonardi family, to specially serve as the sacred resting place for the dearly departed members of St. Louis Church (now Sacred Heart). A short wall once separated it from the adjacent Oaklawn Cemetery, established some 20 years earlier, where many of Tampa’s pioneer residents and some of its more prominent citizens are buried.
What also caught Rossman’s attention that day at his friend’s funeral was a small brick structure with a decaying shingle roof on St. Louis Cemetery’s eastern border.
It, too, was in need of attention. He learned it was a coffin storage building, built in 1874, and one of the oldest structures owned by the diocese.
Now, however, it was pretty much an eyesore.
Rossman, a chemical engineer and consultant, learned that the diocese is responsible for keeping the public lawns mowed and the weeds trimmed; but, there were no funds to restore the building.
That wasn’t good enough for him. Catholics, after all, are supposed to serve. If he could get the youths involved, what better project? This would give them a chance to learn about their history while donating service time to the church.
It would take months of coordination, planning and obtaining city permits, but last week, the Coffin Building Restoration Project began.
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There are always unexpected surprises when work commences on an old building.
“That just comes with the territory,” says Tom Antonini of Certified Builders. “Walls have shifted over the years, and that creates some challenges.”
He’s among the adult volunteers working on the project, both as a contractor and overseeing the youth workers. Members of three area churches — Sacred Heart, Most Holy Redeemer in Tampa and Nativity in Brandon — are committed to the effort.
Several tradesmen are donating their services and time to the project. The work list is ambitious and is expected to be completed by the end of May. Rossman is planning a Tdedication ceremony at the site at 10 a.m. May 31. By then, the building should have a new roof, and its brick walls will be power-washed, regrouted and repaired. The interior will be cleaned out.
Antonini estimates that the project would cost about $10,000. With all the volunteer labor and donations from suppliers, they will need to raise only about $2,000.
Ian Kuechenberg, 21, who is studying electronic engineering at Hillsborough Community College, came to the site last week with his Most Holy Redeemer youth group. He joined his peers smashing holes through the roof and tearing out shingles.
“I never understood how hard contractors work until now,” he says. Although he had plenty of things he could be doing on a sunny Saturday, this took precedence.
“Looking at the dates on all these graves, it’s amazing,” Kuechenberg says. “I also feel like I’m serving God. He’s calling me to help.”
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At one point, St. Louis Cemetery was probably a popular place.
Nowadays, it doesn’t get much traffic. According to Terry Young, associate director of cemeteries for the diocese, it’s only had six burials in eight years.
Young also oversees Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Clearwater, a 105-acre property with 28,000 buried there. Unlike St. Louis — where the plots are privately owned and supposedly maintained — Calvary is a “perpetual care” cemetery. The state now requires that 10 percent of every purchase there goes into a trust fund, with interest used for maintenance, both in public and private spaces.
He estimates some 40 families own plots in St. Louis, with about 150 people buried there. Only 12 more spaces remain.
By law, Young says the diocese cannot do work within the perimeters of a burial site. He would make an exception if a tree toppled over and damaged a marker.
“Those sites don’t belong to us,” he says. “And really, there’s a nostalgic feeling to the place. I really wouldn’t want to mess with history.”
However, he acknowledges that some of the families have moved away or died off, leaving their plots unattended and overgrown.
Rossman says the coffin storage building project is just the first step. He’s hoping to form a “Friends of St. Louis” group to spruce up the grounds, clean and shape up trees and shrubbery and put in stone boundaries and curbing on the walkway that separates the two cemeteries. He also would like to research the records to identify the owners of the unkempt plots and, if possible, encourage them to clean the site.
Still, he’s pleased with the progress made so far.
Bob Batson agrees. His wife’s marker bears an inscription of her favorite saying: “I am content.” His is right next to her’s, waiting, with the answer: “Me, too.”
He knows Cindy would be touched that her decision inspired this transformation of St. Louis Cemetery.
“I know she’s smiling,” he says. “She’s smiling down from heaven.”
The cemetery is located at 606 E. Harrison St. To volunteer with the project, contact Jim Rossman at (813) 431-8366.