St. Mary's Catholic Cemetery
Catherine Ryan


Saint Mary's Catholic Cemetery, a burial ground primarily serving the Catholic communities of Norfolk, Virginia Beach, and Chesapeake, comprises approximately 30 acres of mostly developed land. The cemetery is located at the intersection of Church Street and Monticello Avenue and lies adjacent to the Lafayette River and the Virginia Zoological Park in Norfolk. The Lafayette River and its small tributaries form a natural separation from property owners on the cemetery's north, south, and east boundaries. Aside from a few hills in the older sections, the cemetery lies on relatively flat ground. The property was purchased in 1854 by Father Matthew O'Keefe, who was the founder and pastor of Saint Mary's Catholic Church in downtown Norfolk. (VDHR 122-24).

The main entrance gate was erected in 1956 and is comprised of an overhead iron arch supported on twin red brick columns. A 4 foot high red brick wall extends outward from each column for 12 feet and connects to a six foot aluminum fence the same height that stretches in both directions along the entire west boundary of the cemetery.

Large magnolia trees planted in the early 1960's line the main entrance of the cemetery. There are also numerous large oak, cedar, and pine trees and smaller crepe myrtle trees along with seasonal flowers displayed in public areas that compliment the cemetery's landscape. Magnificent white marble statues and crosses and huge granite monuments and vertical columns are plentiful throughout. Aside from the asphalt roads that meander through this historic district, there are numerous walking paths between rows of lots. The walking paths measure from 5 feet to 18 feet in width. Many of the paths were dirt roads at one time and in an effort toward preservation, several paths were blocked off with concrete curbing in the early 1960's. It was during this period that a number of the wider walking paths were made available as gravesites.

The cemetery centerpiece is a large bronze crucifix erected around 1922 in honor of Catholic servicemen who served in World War I. The sculptor was George A. Lober. This crucifix is identical to a crucifix displayed at the Aquia Shrine located on Route 1 between Richmond, Virginia and Washington, DC. It stands approximately 30 feet high and is surrounded by large stone boulders and on three sides by rows of rose bushes.

There are 5 family mausoleums on the property along with a 416 crypt garden mausoleum, a 96 niche columbarium, and a 504 crypt/80 niche chapel mausoleum. Construction on the garden mausoleum began on March 31, 1979 by Acme Marble & Granite Company of New Orleans, LA. The garden mausoleum dedication was held on May 31, 1980 by Bishop Walter F. Sullivan of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond. The garden mausoleum, located at the rear of the cemetery, was the first cemetery owned mausoleum to be erected in the Richmond diocese. Located in front of the garden mausoleum and built and dedicated in 2003 is the cemetery's columbarium. The niches in the columbarium are available in single and companion units. Construction on the chapel mausoleum began in 2008 by Ingram Construction Company of Madison, MS. Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo dedicated the structure on February 22, 2009 and was the first Catholic chapel mausoleum erected in the Hampton Roads area. The chapel mausoleum is located at the front of the cemetery near the south entrance.

Since its beginning, management of Saint Mary's Catholic Cemetery had been an additional duty for the various pastors of Saint Mary's Catholic Church. In the early 1960's, cemetery management was shifted to the various succeeding pastors of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Norfolk. Father Raymond Barton was the last priest/director of Saint Mary's Cemetery and in 1975 he established the present lay cemetery board. Mr. Michael J. Leonard is the current board president. The cemetery superintendent, Mrs. Alesia Raper, maintains a residence and office on the property and handles day to day operations, lot sales, and supervision of grounds maintenance staff.

The year 1966 brought several major improvements to Saint Mary's Cemetery. Father Joseph L. Leitch was the cemetery director and Mr. Joseph F. Fitzpatrick was the superintendent. At that time the superintendent's residence/office was in need of a major renovation. After careful study the renovation was considered to be cost prohibitive. It was decided to build a new superintendent's residence/office and demolish the existing building. The former building was constructed of an a-frame tin roof with brown shingled siding. The current building is a red brick ranch a-frame design with a white shingled roof. A detached a-frame red brick maintenance building which adjoins the residence/office was constructed in 1985. It was also in 1966 that all the roads throughout the cemetery were paved with asphalt. Prior to that time the road surface consisted of dirt, rock, and cracked oyster shells.

In 1998 board member John Langlois formed the "Friends of Saint Mary's Cemetery". The Friends is made up of a group of lot owners and other concerned individuals who volunteer their time and talents to raise funds and help maintain the cemetery grounds. The group meets at the cemetery on a regular basis and performs such duties as repairing damaged headstones, planting seasonal flowers, weeding, and trimming. The Friends also plan and sponsor an Easter Sunrise Mass each year that is held in front of the cemetery's garden mausoleum along with an All Souls Rosary/Mass each November which is held in the cemetery's chapel mausoleum. Board member Joanie Woodard publishes a semiannual newsletter on cemetery activities which is mailed to lot owners and church parishes. The Friends of St. Mary's Cemetery under the direction of the late board member James Gearheart completed a year long project of power washing monuments and headstones throughout the cemetery.

Through the ongoing dedication and efforts of the cemetery board, the Superintendent, the friends of Saint Mary's Cemetery, and individual lot owners, Saint Mary's Catholic Cemetery continues to be well preserved to honor the memory of those interred.

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3000 Church Street, Norfolk, VA