Cemetery neglect threatens heritage
Bishops, prominent Houstonians, first social worker among those buried at Holy Cross
Badly deteriorating through neglect, the historic Holy Cross Cemetery may succumb to the encroachment and intrusion of its urban environment and the ravages of time. Its location on North Main street along the I-45 freeway puts it in the heart of a very transitional part of the city. The small cemetery is wedged between a near northside neighborhood and the much larger Hollywood Cemetery that borders it. The cemetery is owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Houston-Galveston, who maintain it at a minimal level. It is the burial ground of bishops, clergy, and a diverse group of church faithful, many whose families had a significant role in the development of Houston. The cemetery was established sometime before 1904 but a walk around the grounds shows graves with dates as far back as 1878. Many crumbled and broken gravestones are found in the back portion of the cemetery and the badly damaged chain link fencing that surrounds the cemetery is covered with overgrowth. This fencing runs alongside some rundown houses which appear to be vacant. Several of the gravestones are actually jammed against the fence and partially covered by the overgrowth. It is obvious that much of the early history of Houston is in danger of being lost in this cemetery.
Many Houstonians are probably unaware of the historic nature of the cemetery. Some of those who are buried at Holy Cross are some of Houston's pioneers in many aspects of its history. One, a Franciscan friar by the name of Bartholomew D'Asti, came to Houston in 1861 and started some of the first social services to help those suffering from poverty due to the civil war. Maurice Sullivan, a nationally known architect was buried there in 1961, having designed many buildings in Houston, including several public high schools and churches. There are also several professional ball players in the cemetery who played in the National League in the 1880's. The monuments there have many other names of well known and prominent families who were a part of Houston's early social, religious and economic life. The main mausoleum contains the remains of bishops of the Diocese of Houston-Galveston and other clergy who have served the church over the past century. There are also other smaller mausoleums in the cemetery, some elaborate and neoclassical in design, dedicated to those buried in them. The Holy Cross Cemetery is ethnically and racially diverse, as evidenced by the monuments and burial sections, reflecting German, Irish, Italian, Czech, Polish, Hispanic, Lebanese, African-American and others. In fact it is evident that generations have been buried there, as many of the names are repetitive.
According to the late Rev. Anton J. Frank, Holy Cross Cemetery was established when the St. Vincent's Cemetery on Navigation had to restrict burials. St. Vincent's Cemetery is actually the oldest Catholic cemetery in Houston. Founded in 1853 it contains the graves of heroes of the Texas Revolution and pioneer Houston settlers. The 1867 yellow fever epidemic filled the cemetery quickly, however and families had to buy space in other cemeteries such as Glenwood and eventually Holy Cross. As Rev. Frank relates, the great flu epidemic of 1914 to 1918 also helped fill up the single grave section of Holy Cross called "Stranger's Rest".
In a concern for the welfare of Holy Cross Cemetery and its history, the archdiocese was contacted and urged to take steps to preserve the cemetery and prevent its deterioration. It was suggested that the fencing undergo repairs to offer better security for visitors and that the landscaping be improved. The crumbling gravestones are a bigger problem and need long term solutions. The Texas Historical Commission addresses the problem of cemetery destruction and recommends a master preservation plan for a historic cemetery. A cemetery can be designated a Historic Texas Cemetery through an application process with a minimal fee. The designation provides for the recording of the cemetery into county records as a historically dedicated property worthy of preservation. Any individual, organization or agency may submit an application and show proof that the cemetery is at least 50 years old.
In response, the Director of Cemeteries for the Archdiocese said he was eager to address the concerns about Holy Cross Cemetery. He said there will be several maintenance projects in the future including brush removal and fence repair. Some painting and power washing will be done to the main mausoleum and cross at the entrance. He believes the old gravestones cannot be repaired and may have to be laid flat to the ground. The 100 year old gate may also not be repairable. He blames the lack of rules for older cemeteries for the problems that exist at Holy Cross. It is evident that the preservation of a historic cemetery is a big project requiring funding and manpower that perhaps the Archdiocese may not be able to provide. However, concerned volunteers from the churches as well as the community at large can be a valuable resource in saving Holy Cross Cemetery and the city's heritage from its destruction.
(Near Northwest Banner, October 1, 2006)