Mary Riley, a native of Ireland, died on Dec. 13, 1863. She was 39 years of age. Other than that, little is known about her other than the fact that she was buried at Saint Mary's Cemetery. To be more specific she is Section 1, Row 16, Plot 8, Grave 7.
Saint Mary's, however, is older than the adjoining and better known Mountain View Cemetery, where the first interment occurred in 1865. Naturally Catholics throughout the East Bay know Saint Mary's. For many years the cemetery served one parish in Oakland, St. Mary's Parish, it was the "mother church" for the Catholic community.
People from all walks of life are buried here. Clues can be found on the headstones which bear the names of hundreds of immigrants from Germany, Ireland and Italy, some are in English and others in Spanish, Italian and other languages. The writing on some gravestones only identifies a sole occupant, others married couples, and still others whole families. Especially poignant are the graves of children, some are adorned by sad-faced angels or perhaps a few words from grief-stricken parents.
Dozens of ornate and simple above-ground markers are spread out and dot the landscape like a garden. Some lean precariously on the hilly property; some are badly cracked and broken and, a few angels are armless or wingless.
The rolling hills are challenging to maintain, said Robert Seelig, executive director of the Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services. Saint Mary's is on track for a much needed make-over, which has already taken place at some of the other diocesan cemeteries. Whenever the renovation and repair work begins, it will be costly, Seelig said.
Mountain View Cemetery, on the other hand, looks picture perfect. Not surprising because it was designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead. Olmstead also designed New York's Central Park and parts of UC-Berkeley and Stanford University. Docent-led tours are offered regularly.
Saint Mary's Cemetery is not as familiar to non-Catholics. During a recent visit to the history room at Oakland's main library little information was found about the Catholic cemetery but there were folders of documents and photos of Mountain View Cemetery.
Saint Mary's does have something that the other cemetery doesn't have — an air of mystery. This place can tell a library of stories.
Mary Riley, the first person to be interred at the Catholic cemetery, is a mystery. The most documentation on Riley are photocopied pages from long defunct newspapers such as the Daily Evening Bulletin and the Daily Alta California. In addition to Riley's name and age the newspapers reveal the date of her funeral.
Back at the cemetery office Regina Ruiz, the location manager at Saint Mary's Cemetery carefully pulled out an old barely-held-together record book that bears Mary Riley's fading name. Other than that there is no information about her family or anyone connected to her.
"She is a mystery," Janske said. "I'm still looking for her."
Determining just how many people are interred at Saint Mary's is another mystery. A number of log books containing interment information at some point went missing. In December 1963 a new log book, book No. 10, began keeping count. As of June 24 the number of burials came to 24,558. Using a mathematical formula using log books one to nine resulted in the figure of 63,000. Adding those two numbers resulted in the guesstimate of 87,558.
"This number seems exceptionally low to me yet I could not find any reliable source for this data," Ruiz said.
Official records are difficult to find, Janske said. "Record keeping was not thought of as essential" in those days, he said. At the same time fire destroyed the 1850 census, resulting in a major loss of information. Records were also incomplete because the population in the East Bay was "very fluid," what with people moving to and within the San Francisco Bay Area to find work following the gold rush.
Among the notable people interred at Saint Mary's are Mary Canning, who donated more than $120,000 to fund the building of St. Francis de Sales Church, the diocese's first cathedral; Delilah Beasley, an historian and columnist at the Oakland Tribune who became the first African American to be published regularly in a major metropolitan newspaper; James J. Kenney, first fire chief of Berkeley; and William Toler, who is credited as being the first person to raise an American flag in California, is one of a number of pioneering families in the cemetery.
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