The Former Downtown Dead Zone
The Calvary Cemetery, on the site of the current Cathedral High School, once held the remains of members of Los Angeles’ most prominent early families. It opened in 1844. Photo courtesy of Monsignor Francis J. Weber.

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - If students at Cathedral High School find that local history seems to come easily to them, it could be because they’re right on top of it.

Cathedral, in Chinatown just a few blocks north of the Civic Center, has been in operation since 1925. But nearly a century before the school was built, the area was the site of the city’s first Catholic cemetery.

Broadway was known as Buena Vista Street in 1844 when Catholic officials set aside a 12-acre parcel adjacent to it for burial purposes. Bishop Francisco Garcia Diego y Moreno authorized the local priest to bless what would be known as Calvary Cemetery “as soon as it is properly fenced in.”

Monsignor Francis J. Weber, archivist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, wrote in the 2006 history of the archdiocese he co-authored that the cemetery began “with an adobe building, probably a receiving vault or chapel…” 

The City Council claimed that the graveyard was municipal property, Weber wrote, but the bishop countered that it belonged to the church because it had received an official blessing. The bishop won the argument.

It opened on Nov. 3, 1844, and, for the next five decades, became the final resting place for pioneer families whose names make up a “Who’s Who” of Los Angeles history: Pico, Boyle, Bell, Chapman, Dominguez, Bandini and Downey, among them.

Between 1844 and the end of the 19th century, when the cemetery was shut down and those buried there were moved to a new Calvary Cemetery on Whittier Boulevard east of Downtown, as many as 10,000 of the city’s early residents were laid to rest there. 

As early as 1860, however, the cemetery was criticized as being too small. An article in the Los Angeles Star that year called it “sadly overcrowded” and noted its “crumbling walls.” In 1886, cemetery officials stopped accepting new burials, but no move was made at that time to move the bodies that were already there.

Bishop Francis Mora, recognizing the cemetery’s limitations, had purchased 52 acres at the eastern edge of the city in 1895. Boyle Heights property owners objected to the idea of a graveyard in the area, claiming it would depreciate their property. As a result, the new graveyard was constructed even farther east, outside city limits.

Grave Robbers

In the last days of the burial ground, after the new cemetery was opened in 1896, Calvary fell into disrepair. Marble fixtures were stolen, windows were broken and, worse, tombs were plundered, apparently by people looking for valuables that might have been buried with the deceased.

In January 1903, the skeleton of Maria Ygnacia Pico, who died in 1854 and was the wife of former Gov. Pio Pico, was, according to a Los Angeles Times account, “torn from [its] last resting place in the old Calvary Cemetery on Buena Vista Street. Some ruthless vandal, either in hope of finding valuables in the crypt or out of idle curiosity, broke into the vault during the past few days, tore open the coffin and carried the skeleton… to a point about 50 feet from the tomb.”

A boy on his way home from school found the skeleton in the cemetery and called police, who speculated that jewelry had been taken from the crypt.

The graveyard was vandalized again a year later. This time, the tomb of Andres Briswalter, one of the city’s first wealthy residents, was the target. Briswalter, who was born in France, had come to Los Angeles in 1853 and become a fruit grower. When he died in 1885, his fortune was estimated at $750,000, about $17 million today, according to the Inflation Calculator website.

His tomb, a two-story brownstone and marble chapel, was completed in 1890. It had cost $25,000 to build (more than $500,000 today). Yet, scarcely 14 years later, it was abandoned and in disrepair. In a headline that would seem as much at home in today’s supermarket tabloids as in a June 1904 Times article, an all-capital letters headline read: “GHOULS RUIN FINE CHAPEL.” A secondary headline called the situation a “Scandalous state of affairs.”

The story called the situation a “shock to the sensibilities of all who see the city of the dead.” It attributed the theft of stone flooring and marble tile and the destruction of lights and windows to “hobos and hoodlums,” some of whom had been living in a pile of granite at one edge of the cemetery.

Lost Records, Lost Bodies

All interment records from Old Calvary have been lost, Monsignor Weber said in a recent interview in his office in the San Fernando Mission. “They could have been burned,” he said. “They could be sealed up somewhere. All we know is that they’re lost.”

One result of the loss is that it is impossible to estimate the number of people who were buried there. The 10,000 figure is hard to question, Weber said. Another factor in the equation is that “some people who didn’t want to pay for a burial or couldn’t afford one would bring family members in at night and bury them.”

In June 1925, the Los Angeles City Council adopted an ordinance requiring all bodies to be removed by Jan. 1, 1928. A city planner at that time called the old cemetery “an eyesore” and “a disgrace” and said only about 500 of its “thousands of graves can be found or identified.” In the meantime, Cathedral High School was opened in 1925 in a building at the nearby Sacred Heart Parish Hall. In 1927, classes began at the new campus site.

The January 1928 removal deadline was not met, Weber said. “Burial vaults weren’t universally used,” he said. “So graves were not as well defined. Without the record, it’s impossible to know how many bodies were left behind.”

There were a few surprises at the old cemetery long after it was believed to have been vacated. One Los Angeles Times story told of rumors “of a ghost who haunted the old Calvary Cemetery.” The ghost story became a lot less spectral when a homeless man was arrested for using an abandoned vault as a place to sleep.

In June 1933, workers filling in old vaults found a body of a man they thought might have been a murder victim. An autopsy indicated he had been dead for decades and had been overlooked when moving time came for the Calvary bodies.

As recently as June 1978, a Times historical feature noted that “…up to several years ago, one could still see the outlines of graves along the higher sections of the [area surrounding Cathedral].”

School officials don’t shy away from references to the campus’ history. Today, Cathedral’s athletic teams are known as the Phantoms.

page 1, 05/04/2009

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