A brass plaque at the entrance reads as follows:
"Eternal rest grant unto them and let perpetual light shine upon them
St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Cemetery
Names associated with this cemetery are a partial listing and come from the plaque at the entrance.
Article from Los Angeles Times, Nov 2000
Knights of Columbus Set Out to Put Some Life Into Crumbling Catholic Cemetery
November 13, 2000|GAIL DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES
OJAI — For years, the little Catholic graveyard on Villanova Road sat weedy and forgotten, all but three of its tombstones gone.
A few miles away lies the well-kept and often-visited Nordhoff Cemetery. But the Catholic burial spot--even its name is in question--has been visited in the past couple of decades mostly by the occasional group of kids looking for a scary thrill.
Last year, though, members of the local order of the Knights of Columbus decided to take action.
The group of St. Thomas Aquinas parishioners--led by 67-year-old retiree George Patterson--began clearing brush, spraying weed-killer and designing a rock wall and plaque to honor the Catholics buried there.
But it's not easy finding names for the plaque, Patterson said.
Few people remember much about the cemetery, which held its last burial about five decades ago, and St. Thomas Aquinas Church does not have any burial records. Neither does the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
He doesn't want to leave any names off the brass plaque, Patterson said, and he only has about 25. There might be double that number of people buried there, although, again, no one knows for sure.
Patterson doesn't even know much of the graveyard's history. Archdiocese officials told him it is called St. Thomas Aquinas Cemetery, although a few modern maps identify it as Ojai Cemetery, and at least one death certificate dating from the 1930s calls it Pacific Cemetery.
A local historian gave Patterson three letters dated 1912 showing that the two acres that make up the cemetery were deeded to St. Thomas Aquinas parish by a local landowner, whose son still owns property next door.
The rest of Patterson's knowledge of the place is mostly hearsay. Burials began in late 1912 or early 1913 and ended in the late 1940s or early 1950s. No records have turned up to explain why and exactly when it closed.
Although old cemeteries may be common enough in the eastern United States, so-called inactive cemeteries are rarer in Southern California. In fact, St. Thomas Aquinas Cemetery is among only five shut-down burial grounds owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the archdiocese.
All five are small. Most are--or at least were--rural graveyards that outgrew their usefulness for one reason or another, Tamberg said. They either filled up or fell out of compliance with state regulations or were displaced by another graveyard.
But they are still cemeteries, and in the case of the five belonging to the archdiocese, still consecrated ground. They can't be sold or built on. The archdiocese occasionally sends out maintenance crews to cut down weeds.
Patterson said he first heard about the graveyard from fellow parishioner Manuel Lopez, who died last year at age 80. Lopez had said his brother was buried there but that his tombstone had been stolen, and later turned up across town at Nordhoff Cemetery.
Another headstone ended up in a liquor store in Ventura, someone told Patterson, and other stones suffered similarly ignominious fates.
Frank Real, who came to Ojai in 1920 at age 10, remembers the graveyard as always looking neglected, even while it was still in use.
"I wondered why it was left to die like that," Real said. "I felt sorry for those who had been buried there."
Two of its graves have not been entirely neglected. Martin Edward Gutierrez died in 1937 at age 21, when he burned to death in a smudge-pot accident. He was buried next to his mother, Maria De Jesus Gutierrez, who died in 1933 at age 51.
William Olivas, 79, a priest at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, grew up in Ojai and was an altar boy who served at many burials in the little cemetery, including Edward Gutierrez's.
"We had a severe winter with a lot of freezing," Olivas said. Farm workers had heated the orchards with oil-burning pots, which warmed the air in citrus groves before the advent of wind machines.
One of the pots tipped over, and Gutierrez's clothing caught fire, Olivas said. The tragedy brought out the whole town for a long funeral procession, from the downtown chapel to the cemetery two miles away.
Olivas remembered the grave diggers saying that the ground was hard and full of rocks.
Ventura resident Mike Chapman, 33, is the grandson of Red Gutierrez--who lives in Ojai and was Martin's younger brother. As a child, Red and his family would visit the mother and son's unmarked graves and always found the right spot by walking 50 paces up from the road, along the cemetery's fence, then 25 paces in.
Later the family erected a wooden cross, which still stands over the graves.
It is the last of many wooden crosses once dotting the graveyard, placed there by families too poor to afford tombstones. Some families marked graves with tin cans, or only remembered where they were by counting paces from the fence, Chapman said.
One rainy day decades ago, Red was passing the cemetery and saw a poor family burying their baby without a box, struggling in the rain to dig the hole.
He went to find a box and helped the family bury their child, Chapman said.
Other leads about the cemetery have trickled in. Patterson said one person buried in 1934 might have been the victim of a flu epidemic. Chapman's grandfather and other relatives recall the names of three families who buried their dead there: Acosta, Trinidad and Refugio. He plans to look through death certificates at mortuaries to find out the names and dates.
Gradually, perhaps as the road to Ventura improved, Ojai's Catholics shifted their burials to Ventura, and the little graveyard faded from view.All that remains visible from the road is a weather-beaten old cross, losing its battle with the ground squirrels. A faded wreath with a bow is tacked on, placed there each Christmas by Betty McAllister, a parishioner at St. Thomas Aquinas Church.
"I don't have any idea who this person is," McAllister said. "I just do it to alert people that it's a cemetery and that our loved ones should be remembered at Christmastime."