Visiting the cemetery for a scholarly lunch

Historic City News reporters and readers attended yesterday’s Tolomato Cemetery “Lunch and Learn” presented by the Florida Public Archaeology Network in celebration of Florida Archaeology Month.

Tolomato started life as a mission Indian village and eventually becoming the parish cemetery for what is now the Cathedral Basilica of St Augustine.

Among the oldest surviving St. Augustine families, many have relatives buried at Tolomato. Some immediately recognizable surnames include Masters, Papy, Segui, Pacetti, Drysdale, Oliveros, Sanchez and Gonzalez.

A guided presentation that lasted about an hour included a wealth of details and little known facts about the oldest extant planned cemetery in Florida; that closed to new burials in 1884 and has been closed to the public for many years.

Last November, Tolomato Cemetery Preservation Association began holding visitors days; opening one Saturday per month, from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Guided visits are free of charge, although visitors are encouraged to offer a donation. All money goes to the preservation and restoration of the cemetery.

Tolomato Cemetery Steward Elizabeth Gessner pointed out similarities of the graveyard to those in Orleans Parrish, Louisiana, as she led the eager learners who participated in yesterday’s special tour through the maze of above-ground burial vaults, massive wrought-iron, concrete and brick barricades that dot the cemetery property.

The cemetery has a foreboding, gothic appearance from the street that seems to become more tranquil as you spend time reading markers and informational signs posted about grounds. Recently, park-style benches have been added and debris removed to preserve a stronger sense of reflective purpose.

Ghost tour operators, including Ancient City Tours owner Diane Lane, were poking around picking up bits of fact and legend, however, the TCPA will not allow “ghost tourists” inside the cemetery at night and there are plenty of historically accurate accounts to be learned during the day; courtesy of the Preservation Association.

For example, did you know that our first black general, General Jorge Biassou, who commanded a free-black militia out of Fort Matanzas, is buried at Tolomato Cemetery? Biassou lived in the Salcedo House on St. George Street that is now occupied by Whetstone Chocolates, and, upon his death, his funeral was held at the Catholic Cathedral in St. Augustine.

Tolomato Cemetery is located in St. Augustine at 16 Cordova Street — about one block south of the Visitor Information Center and Parking Garage, just beyond the Old Drug Store.

Photo credits: © 2011 Historic City News staff photographer

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