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Calvary Cemetery, San Diego, CA

(now a part of Calvary Pioneer Memorial Park, aka Pioneer Park;
aka Catholic Cemetery, aka Mission Hills Cemetery, aka Old Catholic Cemetery)
1501 Washington Place, San Diego, CA 92103

"Dedicated to the Memory of Those Interred Within This Park"

  Childhood Remembrances of
Calvary 'Mission Hills' Cemetery

By Peter H. Steelquist
Posted by permission, 24 June 2005

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I was born at Mercy Hospital in 1948 and have always lived in Mission Hills. I attended 'the old' Grant Elementary School from kindergarten through sixth grade.  The school bordered the cemetery's southern boundary and the school's playground went along its entire eastern boundary, separated by an adobe brick wall.  For the students, the cemetery was always 'just there', a kind of relic, where we shared our blissful days playing dodge ball, baseball and other youthful sports.  Grades 1-3 played in the south, blacktop playground while grades 4-6 played in the north dirt playground bordering the cemetery. The cemetery could not be seen from the classrooms.  By design, there were no classroom windows on the north side of the school, the side where the 5th and 6th grade classrooms were narrowly separated from the cemetery by only a short adobe wall (which still stands today).  That view would have proved too tempting a vision for youthful daydreaming.  In fact, the north facing wall was a hallway running the entire length of the building with only an occasional high transit window which was seldom, if ever, opened.

I don't know that we ever thought of the 'grave yard' (as we called it) as an eerie, creepy place - except perhaps in our mental images and stories of some Halloween night make-believe adventure.  During the day, while at play, it was a rather peaceful place.  Like our playground, it was all dirt, with some trees but no grass or manicured gardens.  The wall that separated us was about ten feet west of the line of tall Eucalyptus trees which still stand sentinel today and only about four feet tall.  Between the trees and the wall were bicycle racks where we parked our bikes while at school.  The wall itself was always in somewhat of a state of disrepair -- a few bricks missing here and there, with telltale signs of former attempts to mend the damage caused by the elements and vandalism.  It did provide us a place to sit, giving us a back rest while waiting our turn at play.  As I recall, there was only one gate into the cemetery on the east side - about mid point in the playground. It was never locked, as it was in rather dilapidated condition, barely able to move on its creaking hinges.  A few years later, however, it was gone altogether.

We were always told that the cemetery was 'off bounds', never a place to venture or play during school hours.  If a foul ball went over the wall, we had to ask the playground attendants for permission to retrieve it.  And never over the wall, always through the gate.  More than once a ball was sent over the wall on purpose just to provide a few boys, myself included, with some diversion during the recess period.  The girls, it seemed, almost never wanted to go over to search for a wayward ball.

In my memory, the cemetery always seems very large, much more so than Pioneer Park does today.  There were a few weekend or summer days when a childhood friend or two and I, with nothing better to do, would walk the ten or so blocks to the cemetery.  We would traipse among the stones and markers, all nicely laid out in a grid pattern, and see who could find the oldest dates or just to admire the statues and carvings.  Some of the markers were simply small plaques laid in the ground while others were elaborate monuments and crypts paying eternal homage to the deceased.  One large monument I do remember, just inside the gate, was a large angel with outstretched wings standing upon a pedestal.  One wing was partially broken off, symbolically unable to make the assent to heaven.  I also still recall a feeling emptiness and vulnerability in reading the markers of children as the notion of my own mortality did not exist in my young psyche.

Some of the marble and granite markers were broken and others tipped over from years of senseless vandalism.  Some of the full length slabs were even broken and in pieces with gaping breaches leading to the grave, giving my youthful imagination hints of some diabolical Frankenstein plot.  Other evidence of senseless trespasses were the cache of beer cans that strewn the grounds after a weekend revelry of underage drinking by older neighborhood youth.  While no one I knew ever admitted to desecrating the grounds, it clearly was a 'dare' and right of passage for more than a few in the many generations that grew up in neighborhoods around the cemetery.

The more ephemeral memories I recall of the grave yard include the musky smell from the Eucalyptus tree sap and seed pods, the snap of the tree twigs and bark underfoot that blanketed the grounds and the songs of the birds - the robin, the jay, the dove -- that interrupted the otherwise quiet of the afternoon.  In the spring, the weeds would grow tall and green and by summer turn dry and brown.  I don't know that I ever saw the grounds ever being cared for, the weeds trimmed or monuments repaired, but it must have happened as the grounds usually seemed inviting and waiting for someone to come.  And there was always a hint of life there, seen in the flowers left behind by the living who came to pay their respect to the departed at their stone edifices.

Now as a park, with only a small memorial to pay respect to the inhabitants still buried beneath, it breaths new life to those who bring their families there to play, picnic and while away some empty hours.  But the memory of those gone is fading.  First forgotten when the body ceased to function and was placed beneath the earth and out of sight.  Lost further to time when no one was left alive to remember them.  And perhaps most final was when the markers that reminded us when and that they lived were removed, the epitaph to their lives now gone forever.

While the ravages of time and the march of progress may take their toll on even our most sacred, hallowed ground, we should not forget, at least in passing, the tributes we owe to those ancestors who helped cultivate our land and pave the way for the legacy we share today and owe to tomorrow.  Lest they be forgotten, we owe a debt and duty to preserve those memories.  For me, not only is the cemetery now gone but also the Grant Elementary School of my youth, except in my memories which I now share with you.

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Calvary Cemetery, San Diego, CA

Marna L. Clemons
(858) 486-6099

Created April 2004
Last Revision -
Wednesday, 04-Jan-2017 00:58:09 MST
© 2004-2017  Marna L. Clemons
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