A Publication of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland
Catholic Voice Online Edition
Front Page In this Issue Around the Diocese Forum News in Brief Calendar Commentary
Mission Statement
Contact Us
Publication Dates
Back Issues

Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland

Movie Reviews

Mass Times

Catholic Voice
September 23, 2013   •   VOL. 51, NO. 16   •   Oakland, CA
Other front page stories
Diocese gets its first ACE
high school teacher

Archbishop Brunett suffers stroke
Saint Mary's Oakland cemetery
marks 150 years

Regina Ruiz, the location manager at Saint Mary's Cemetery.
josÉ luis aguirre/The Catholic Voice

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.

While many of the graves near her resting place have a headstone, Riley's grave has no headstone. She rests beneath a patch of grass. A good number of people buried at Saint Mary's don't have headstones. "I was surprised by how few people have a marker or stone," said Alfred Janske, who is a frequent visitor at the Oakland cemetery.

Janske devotes much time and energy looking for graves as a member of Find A Grave, a group of volunteers who search graveyards for people who are investigating the history of their families. His work also helps cemetery staffs, researchers and historians working on various projects.

This year Saint Mary's Cemetery observes its 150th anniversary and Janske has been focusing his efforts on turning up more information to augment what is already known about the cemetery.

Commemorative services are scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. Oct. 5, with a Mass presided by Bishop Michael Barber, SJ, assisted by Msgr. Ray Breton. Saint Mary's Cemetery is at 4529 Howe St., Oakland.

Also that day, a new statue of Saint Mary will be blessed and a new marker for the plot of Juan Bautista Alvarado will be dedicated. Alvarado was the last governor of Alta California, which is what the area was called under Mexican rule. The San Pablo Historical Society raised the funds to buy and have the marker installed. A reception will follow with food and live music.

150 years
Saint Mary's Cemetery
4529 Howe St., Oakland
Oct. 5, 11 a.m.
Mass, events, reception
Despite reaching the ripe age of 150, Saint Mary's isn't the oldest cemetery in the city of Oakland nor is it the first established Catholic cemetery in Oakland. Saint Mary's is "at least the second Catholic cemetery that is not part of a parish or a farm family's plot," Janske said. "There was a cemetery that had no name — as far as I can find — in the small town of Oakland in the 1850s."

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.

Next Front Page Article

back to topup arrow


Copyright © 2013 The Catholic Voice, All Rights Reserved. Site design by Sarah Kalmon-Bauer.