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St. Nicholas Cemetery

Naval aviators are superstitious when it comes to flying over graveyards: it is considered taboo and should be avoided. At least, that is what naval tradition maintains. This may or may not be one of the reasons why, in 1942, the Patuxent Naval Air Station Command decided to bury a 150-year-old graveyard located on the base east of Lexington Park, Maryland. Whatever the reason, the current Naval Command has authorized Scott Lawrence of Grave Concerns, with assistance from GAC, and the St. Mary's County Genealogical Society, to (voluntarily!) restore the graveyard.

Location

St. Nicholas Cemetery and Church began serving Roman Catholic residents of Cedar Point, in St. Mary’s County, near Lexington Park, MD, in 1795. Research has confirmed the burial of 584 people, including war veterans and enslaved and freed African Americans. Further research may reveal more.

In 1916, patrons erected a new chapel as the original St. Nicholas Church began to deteriorate after 120 years of use. In 1942, when the U.S. Navy established its defense Station at Cedar Point, it retained the new St. Nicholas Church, now the non-denominational Station Chapel, located near the newly erected entry gates.

 
 

Number of Interred Veterans

  War of Independence 3
  Militia of 1794 4
  War of 1812 7
  Civil War 7
  World War I 1
Working

RestoredThe graveyard, however, suffered a different fate. Workers conducted a survey of all the known graves on the site and produced a map depicting 320 grave locations and stone inscriptions. The surveyed graves had either stone, wooden, or iron markers—not all were marked. The stones were then toppled into holes dugjust above the graveshafts...not deep holes, just deep enough to accommodate the monuments. Each monument was then covered over with several inches of soil and sod.

The site has been undisturbed since that time and if you had visited the Naval Air Station a few years ago, you may have spied the Base Chapel atop a grassy hill shaded by leafy sycamores and dense cedars—and no grave markers—a significantly different appearance from what one would have seen 60 years earlier.

In 2003, St. Mary’s County native Scott Lawrence began searching for the burials of his ancestors. Armed with his grandfather’s memory of the St. Nicholas graveyard, and considerable perserverance in getting the Department of the Navy and the Maryland Historical Trust to approve the project, his search culminated in 2009 with the successful documentation and restoration of all the remaining gravestone.

Volunteers provided brawn and ingenuity to reposition larger stones (above left); though the uncovered stone material is well-preserved (above right), many are highly fractued; these stones are restored with as little change as possible (below)

Project manager and volunteer Scott Lawrence aims to honor all who are forgotten in St. Nicholas Cemetery

Mr. Lawrence teamed with archaeologist Jim Gibb, and together, they relied on experience, ingenuity, and doggedness to locate, record, and restore markers. Headstones, footstones, plinth stones, and iron crosses, located as much as three feet under the surface, were located using the 1942 map and surveying equipment.  Once the edges of the marker were located using a soil probe, volunteers uncovered the marker using a shovel (for turf only!) and a mason’s trowel and whisk broom. The marker and its inscriptions were then recorded and photographed. Using levers, pulleys, wits, and care, the stones (sometimes weighing as much as one ton) were re-erected on their original sites. Given the nature of the soils, the marble markers are remarkably well-preserved and required only water and a scrub brush for the inscriptions to look freshly carved. Mr. Lawrence relied on donations to restore fractured stones and shattered tablets—a fairly expensive undertaking.


Although the field component of the project has been completed, Scott and Jim aim to put the accumulated data...inscriptions, phoographs of each monument, and the site map...online for the use and enjoyment of all. Because St. Nicholas cemetery is onboard a naval installation, it is not readily accessible to visitors.

 

 
 

 

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