Burial ground gets new life
by Lenny Roberts
Until recently, it looked like a two-acre, weed-infested plot
of land on Villanova Road, riddled with the persistent efforts
of gophers and ground squirrels. A closer look yielded the remnants
of a few toppled tombstones surrounded by long-forgotten grave
sites - most of which will never be identified.
Reportedly, records of most, if not all, of the burials were
lost in Ojai's catastrophic fire of 1917, which burned the home
of Sexton McKee. McKee was a cemetery trustee for both the Nordhoff
and Catholic cemeteries in the early 1900s, according to Bill
Friend, a longtime member of the Ventura County Historical Society.
The cemetery was established in 1912, when, according to letters
on file at the Ojai Museum, William Kerfoot deeded two acres
of land to the Los Angeles Archdiocese for what was to become
St. Thomas Aquinas Cemetery. It interred its last guest years
ago, and has since fallen victim to neglect and vandalism.
Three months ago, sometime after the 83-year-old tombstone of
5-year-old Juan G. Lopez mysteriously wound up at Nordhoff Cemetery,
the Archdiocese began cleaning up the site, and installed a chain-link
fence around what is now an arched-gate entry. But unlike typical
cemeteries, the driveless entryway leads to a field of dead but
neatly mowed weeds and spring grass, and not to marked graves.
"This place is locked up now," caretaker Ed Kurtenbach
explained. "We've had a lot of desecration to the graves
and a lot of beer bottles under the oak trees."
With the exception of a few toppled tombstones and pedestals
stripped of what used to be, the once-proud burial ground for
many poor Hispanics and others who could only afford coffee cans
or rocks as markers is just a useless piece of Ojai's history.
No one else can be buried there because no one knows for sure
exactly where the graves are.
Kurtenbach, who was recently recognized for his years of above-and-beyond
volunteer service to both St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Villanova
Preparatory School, is in charge of maintenance and general landscaping
for the plot of land just up the road from Villanova's main entrance.
Kurtenbach said according to the new bronze marker just inside
the new wrought-iron gate, there are 27 confirmed burials at
the cemetery, although only one or two can be located. Poi Pearl,
who owns neighboring land, estimated that based on the rows of
coffee-can markers he remembers seeing in the 1950s, there could
be as many as 75 to 100 people buried there.
"The reason there are no real markers is that very poor
members of mostly Mexican families were buried there. That's
why they used coffee cans. But they were all legal plots, even
thought the county has no real record," Kurtenbach said.
"If any relatives have loved ones or family members buried
there, we need to know. We can put their names on the bronze
plaque to recognize that they are buried there."
A dedication is planned for late July, where George Harsh, head
of all maintenance of cemeteries in the Archdiocese and St. Thomas
pastor Father Keane are expected to attend.
Kurtenbach and George Patterson, who has since moved to Porterville,
did the footwork on the restoration job. Kurtenbach constructed
an 8-foot, white wooden cross surrounded by a semi-circle rock
wall that hosts four or five broken cement grave markers - most
of which are unreadable.
"That's not where they're buried; we put them there just
to remember them," Kurtenbach said.
The cross, like the grave-sized patch of irises under an oak
tree that emerge and bloom each year, and the toppled marble
stone marking the crypt of one Archibald McDonell, are the only
visible proof that this is actually a cemetery, other than two
pieces of rotting 4X4 wood near the entrance that seem to indicate
Once a year, Betty McAllister places a red ribbon the makeshift
"I do not know who is buried there," she explained.
"Years ago, it got so neglected I thought I'd put a little
red ribbon at Christmastime. It gave me a good feeling."
McAllister said she found out later that the burial site may
be that of a member of the Gutierrez family.
"I'm glad it's there because it was the only sign that it
was a cemetery for years, and it kind of reminds me of the song.
"The Old Rugged Cross," she said.
© 2002 The Ojai Valley News
Back to the news
THOMAS AQUINAS CEMETERY has been shrouded in mystery, and has
fallen into neglect and been a victim of vandalism. A dedication
of the cemetery is planned for late July.