Burial sites contain a hidden treasure trove of local history

By Calvin Nuttall

Thanks to the efforts of native Gilroyan David Peoples, the once-forgotten and abandoned Old Saint Mary Cemetery can once again be appreciated by the public. The passionate amateur historian will lead a public tour Saturday Nov. 4.

The headstones and mausoleums of Old Saint Mary display many names familiar to South Valley residents. They adorn some of the roads, neighborhoods, schools, and other landmarks of the area to honor members of these pioneer families. They include Murphy, Bernal, Tennant, Dunne, and Gilroy.

Old Saint Mary and the church it was originally attached to were established in 1865 by Father Thomas Hudson, who is himself buried there. The church was built on Monterey Street, near today’s Oaks Motel. The church has been moved once and rebuilt twice since then. Saint Mary Church now stands at the corner of Monterey and First streets.

In its earliest days, what is now Gilroy was a small settlement in an area known as Rancho San Ysidro. The Saint Mary parish was populated predominantly by Irish immigrants. Many traveled from Ireland to Quebec, Canada, and then to Missouri before finally moving west to California.

“A lot of the people buried here were born in Canada,” Peoples said. “Including the Murphys. They were already pretty well-to-do when they came to the U.S., but two of the brothers (John and Daniel) went to the gold fields and were overwhelmingly successful.”

With that old money and new gold, the Murphys purchased land from the Mexican government and local rancheros. At one point, by some estimates, they were possibly the largest landowners in the world, with real estate in several states and Mexico.

Among the other prominent people buried there is Catherine O’Toole Dunne, known as a generous philanthropist. She managed the immense ranch-land estates left to her by two deceased husbands, both wealthy landowners. She used her money to contribute generously to the Saint Mary Parish, helping to fund the construction of the church and school. The land that is now Morgan Hill belonged to her and she sold lots to people in the 1890s to start a community. She is buried with others in the Dunne family in a large, impressive crypt.

Barbara Sierra Solorsano’s grave is one of the burials Peoples identified using the parish’s records. The original cross or headstone is missing. Solorsano was the last full-blooded member of the Amah Mutsun tribe. Her daughter, Ascension, was the last native speaker of the Amah Mutsun language. Solorsano Middle School in Gilroy is named after Ascension.

John Cameron Gilroy, for whom the city is named, is perhaps the most prominent individual found. A Scot who arrived in South Valley by way of Monterey, supposedly after running away from home to board a ship, Gilroy came ashore with little but the clothes on his back. By the time of his death in 1869, he owned more than 1,000 acres of local ranch-land.

The cemetery contains more than 500 known burial sites. Not all have been identified. While physically restoring the graveyard, Peoples also hit the books, searching through the parish’s century-old documents to locate and identify unmarked graves.

“About the only resource we have to identify the unknown interments is the purchase records of plots,” he said. “Then we go through the names of the owners and determine who they would have buried there. There are a number of them where we know the names of the plot owners, but there are no names on the graves. Many of these families are gone completely, with no way of tracing them.”

Despite these historical riches, the cemetery had been left to “wrack and ruin” until eight years ago, Peoples said. Overgrown, covered with leaves, and protected by little more than a broken-down Cyclone fence, the cemetery was in pitiful condition.

In 2015 on the 150th anniversary of the cemetery’s dedication, volunteers and community groups decided to refurbish it. They put in pathways and benches, tore down the old fence and put up a new wrought iron fence.

Unfortunately, the efforts to renovate it did not translate into upkeep. Peoples saw the cemetery falling into disrepair and decided to take it upon himself to oversee the cemetery’s maintenance.

“That’s when I started my self-appointed tenure as steward,” he said. “My family comes from a long Santa Clara County line. I’ve got more than 50 relatives here. It’s very personal.”

His most recent project is the construction of wooden crosses to identify the unmarked graves. With each cross, he includes an informational placard to identify the individual and provide some background about their life and death.

“I’ve already put in about 40, and have ordered another 30. I think that will do it,” he said. “It is a good start, but these little wooden crosses won’t last forever. The next thing will probably be cleaning some of the headstones. I would like to get those back into shape. But if you want to do it the right way, it is not cheap. You can’t just come out here with a power washer and clean them off because it destroys the stone.”

He would also like to repair some of the broken headstones, many of which have been seriously damaged by earthquakes, as well as vandalism and general weathering. Doing so requires a special adhesive for each type of stone, which can be quite expensive.

For Peoples, taking care of Old Saint Mary is more than a hobby. His work honors his family history. During a stroll through the cemetery, he pointed at graves of his ancestors.

“The Ceseña (family name) in here was my second great-grandfather,” he said, indicating a cross he had installed. “The Bernal over here was married to one of his kids. I’m related to the Murphys, I’m related to the Fishers. My second great-grandfather was the ranch foreman for Mr. (Hiram) Morgan Hill. I have a lot of personal drive to make it happen. I just wish I had started sooner. I am already 80.”

Calvin Nuttall is a Morgan Hill-based freelance reporter and columnist.