Mystery of the Missing Markers

Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two-part series regarding the history of East Sacramento’s former New Helvetia Cemetery.

It has been nearly 162 years since Captain John A. Sutter set aside 10 acres for his establishment’s first formal burial ground, the now nonexistent New Helvetia Cemetery.

The cemetery, which was eventually doubled in size, served the community for many years before evolving into a public park, which was known as Helvetia Park.

The old cemetery grounds, with the exception of a tombstone-like marker presenting information about the former cemetery, are no longer distinguishable. The land is presently the site of Sutter Middle School at 3150 I St.

In the process of creating Helvetia Park, the old cemetery, which actually adjoined East Park (today’s McKinley Park), had its headstones removed and replaced with flat gravesite identifying markers.

Unfortunately, various decisions and actions connected to the processes of creating the park and removing the cemetery in its entirety resulted in many missing tombstones and markers and even unidentified graves.

Other gravesites were presumably left unidentified in earlier times due to such possible causes as the deterioration of wooden markers and flooding that carried away wooden markers. Because of recurrent flooding in the area, there were no burials at the cemetery from 1850 to 1857.

A classic example related to the old cemetery’s missing markers was presented in the Aug. 11, 1989 edition of The Sacramento Bee, as a story was related in which a lecture about Sacramento cemeteries at California Middle School was interrupted by a boy who raised his hand and said, “We have some of those stones in our yard.”

In a meeting with the East Sacramento News last week, Dr. Bob LaPerriere, co-chair of the Sacramento County Cemetery Advisory Commission, discussed the topic of missing tombstones and other markers from the New Helvetia Cemetery.

“When they removed the bodies in the 1950s, we’re not sure exactly what happened, but some people recall that these concrete markers were kind of stacked up along the street,” LaPerriere said. “A couple years ago, we located – just between two homes behind Sutter Middle School – over 70 of these flat, concrete markers. They were used for stepping stones and kind of to widen the driveway.”

LaPerriere said that a unique event occurred following the discovery of these markers, as the stones were transported from Sutter Middle School to East Lawn Memorial Park at Folsom Boulevard and 43rd Street via a horse-drawn wagon.

The decision to deliver these markers to East Lawn Memorial Park was a simple one, considering that the city had purchased property at the cemetery for a mass, unmarked burial site, where 4,691 unidentified human remains from the New Helvetia Cemetery were reinterred.

Unfortunately, this large number of “unknowns,” as these unidentified remains are often referred to, account for the majority of the remains from the New Helvetia Cemetery.

The Sacramento Historic City Cemetery at 1000 Broadway is the site of the remains of about 400 additional people who were once buried at the New Helvetia Cemetery.

However, these remains are individually identified and are located in three separate areas at the Broadway cemetery, west of Riverside Boulevard.

Other individually identified remains from the New Helvetia Cemetery were reinterred at the following Sacramento city and county cemeteries: East Lawn, Masonic Lawn Cemetery at 2700 Riverside Blvd., Odd Fellows Lawn Cemetery at 2720 Riverside Blvd., St. Joseph’s Cemetery at 2615 21stt St., St. Mary’s Cemetery at 6700 21st St., Sacramento Memorial Lawn at 6100 Stockton Blvd., Elk Grove Cemetery at 8540 Elk Grove Blvd. in Elk Grove and the Sylvan Cemetery at 7401 Auburn Blvd. in Citrus Heights.

Despite this long list of other cemeteries, LaPerriere notes that a relatively low number of remains from the New Helvetia Cemetery were relocated to these cemeteries.

LaPerriere provided the following numbers regarding the relocations of these remains: 410 sent to Broadway cemetery, 84 to East Lawn, 32 to Odd Fellows, six to Sacramento Memorial Lawn, three to St. Joseph’s, three to Elk Grove, two to St. Mary’s and one to Masonic.

In regard to the many flat markers from the New Helvetia Cemetery site that are still missing today, LaPerriere mentioned that he would not be surprised if some of these markers are presently located on residential properties within the nearby vicinity of this former East Sacramento cemetery.

Although the aforementioned mass burial at East Lawn Memorial Park is recognized as consisting of “unknowns” or unidentified remains, this does not mean that there are no records of any of the names of the deceased people from the New Helvetia Cemetery who were reburied there.

To the contrary, records exist for many people who were buried at the New Helvetia Cemetery and it is by deduction from the names of those who were reinterred in other local cemeteries that a list of assumed names was created for the mass burial site at East Lawn Memorial Park.

LaPerriere said that East Lawn Memorial Park, although it was not obligated to do so, greatly contributed to the cemetery’s mass burial site.

“The city never put up a marker or anything (at the mass burial site), absolutely nothing,” LaPerriere said. “It took John Bettencourt (the late cemetery historian and preservationist who was vital in the formation of the Old City Cemetery Committee) and I working with East Lawn, quite a few years ago, to get the area memorialized. East Lawn, of course, had no responsibility to do it. The city bought the area, buried the people and the city should have taken care of things. But East Lawn, being very community minded, worked with us and they put four (right angle) corner walls in around the area to demarcate the area and they put a nice monument in the center memorializing those who were moved from New Helvetia (Cemetery).”

In addition to this burial site’s corner markers, most of the perimeter of the site is outlined with the flat, concrete markers that had been retrieved from the residential yards near Sutter Middle School.

As of about two years ago, the whereabouts of only one verified original tombstone from the New Helvetia Cemetery was known.

But fortunately, it was discovered that another original New Helvetia Cemetery tombstone – that of members of the Asch family – was located in Auburn.

About a month ago, the stone was relocated to Sacramento and it will soon be placed in the Sacramento Historic City Cemetery’s already existing Asch plot.

LaPerriere said that anyone with information regarding missing headstones or markers from the New Helvetia Cemetery is encouraged to call the Sacramento County Cemetery Advisory Commission at (916) 874-9103 or write to the e-mail address: cemeterycommission@saccounty.net.

Anyone with information regarding missing headstones or markers from the New Helvetia Cemetery is encouraged to call the Sacramento County Cemetery Advisory Commission at (916) 874-9103 or write to the e-mail address: cemeterycommission@sac

county.net

Pioneer cemetery once sat at site of East Sacramento’s Sutter Middle School

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series regarding the history of East Sacramento’s former New Helvetia Cemetery.

When it comes to local history, many longtime Sacramentans can proudly tell those of younger generations how they remember when East Sacramento’s Sutter Middle School, which is located south of McKinley Park at the corner of Alhambra Boulevard and J Street, was the site of a city park. But few people today can recall seeing the site during its pre-park years.

Sutter Middle School at the corner at Alhambra Boulevard and J Street was once the site of a pioneer cemetery. / Valley Community Newspapers photo, Lance Armstrong

Sutter Middle School at the corner at Alhambra Boulevard and J Street was once the site of a pioneer cemetery. / Valley Community Newspapers photo, Lance Armstrong

It is somewhat ironic that the only evidence at this site relating to this earlier era is a tombstone-like marker, which describes the property’s former existence as a pioneer cemetery, which included many large markers.

Indeed, a full-fledged cemetery, complete with stone and wooden headstones and large monuments, once covered the site where the school grounds are located today, as is evident by the information provided on the non-cemetery marker – which sits along the fence line of the school’s Alhambra Boulevard side – as well as a variety of historical documentations.

The fact that the cemetery was established in the 1840s as the burial plot of Sutter’s Fort is sufficient enough information for one who has at least a general understanding of Sacramento’s roots to realize that the school sits on one of the city’s most historic sites.

Referred to in some references as being initially called the “Sutter Fort Burying Ground,” this former, private 20-acre cemetery, which was renamed the New Helvetia Cemetery in 1850 in recognition of its location within Captain John Sutter’s Mexican land grant by the same name, became the burial place of deceased pioneers of the area.

According to an article in the Nov. 12, 1873 edition of The Sacramento Union, after some confusion as to who was the first person to be buried at the cemetery, it was determined that this notoriety belonged to Major Cloud, a paymaster in the United States Army, who died in July or August 1847 – a day after falling off his horse about a half-mile southeast of Sutter’s Fort.

Also significant in the cemetery’s history was the existence of a burial site that included the remains of many of the victims who died during the city’s cholera epidemic of 1850.

In the northeast corner of the cemetery was property designated for Chinese burials.

This area was divided into four, 50-foot by 50-foot sections, two of which were surrounded by iron fences and the other two with wooden fences. And in each lot was a furnace for burning clothing and property of the deceased and incense.

The cemetery was purchased from Sutter by Dr. R.H. McDonald in 1850, and seven years later, it was sold to J.W. Reeves.

During Reeves’ ownership of the New Helvetia Cemetery, in 1860, it was reported by The Union that the cemetery had totaled 420 interments.

Reeves later deeded the cemetery to the city of Sacramento for use as a public cemetery.

In 1885, the cemetery was overhauled, as very large trees that were believed to detract from the beauty of the burial grounds were removed, smaller trees were trimmed, weeds were cut down, driveways were improved and aging redwood markers were refurbished.

A year after the cemetery’s major facelift, however, the Sacramento Record-Union reported that the writing on many redwood markers had been “obliterated by the rains of succeeding winters” and in one corner of the property, headboards “blackened with age” stood so close together that they had the appearance of a “stubble field” – a field where plant material such hay has been cut and left with short stubble.

On May 12, 1887, the Record-Union described the cemetery as being under the management of Nicholas Mohns, who was reported to have prided himself in “keeping everything scrupulously neat.”

During the same time, Mohns, who resided at 2830 O St., was also in charge of the Jewish cemetery, which was established on the opposite side of J Street in 1850.

Although there is no complete record of the interments of the New Helvetia Cemetery in existence, various records reveal the names of those who were buried at the cemetery.

This c. 1909 photograph shows the gravesite of the Rev. Elijah Merchant, a pioneer preacher and pastor, who had his ashes interred in the New Helvetia Cemetery in 1857. / Photo public domain

This c. 1909 photograph shows the gravesite of the Rev. Elijah Merchant, a pioneer preacher and pastor, who had his ashes interred in the New Helvetia Cemetery in 1857. / Photo public domain

For instance, preserved in the 1909 “Souvenir History of the First Methodist Episcopal Church” – a book written for the 60th anniversary of the church – is a biography of the Rev. Elijah Merchant, a pioneer preacher and pastor whose ashes were placed in the New Helvetia Cemetery 153 years ago.

A rare photograph from the cemetery appears in the book and features Merchant’s old headstone, which was engraved with the words: “Elijah Merchant, member of the Cala Conference, Died at Los Angeles, Oct. 26, 1857, aged 28 years, ‘I have fought a good fight.’”

The book also notes that the ashes of other preachers who participated in the annual “California Conference,” which was referred to on Merchant’s headstone, were consecrated within the same plot at the cemetery.

Additionally, the 1909 First M.E. Church book refers to a then-current and now historical part of the cemetery’s history, the possible removal of the cemetery.

Due to flooding during the cemetery’s early years and eventual development in the area, discussions regarding the abandonment and potential elimination of the cemetery continuously resurfaced.

The cemetery officially operated until 1912, despite the fact that the city had previously discouraged any future burials at this cemetery and suggested that many of the existing remains at this site be relocated.

In the midst of the well-publicized efforts to transform the cemetery into a park, the city purchased the Chinese portion of the cemetery for $3,020 in 1917 and the Chinese remains were removed.

Work to eliminate tombstones from the old cemetery for a future park resulted in only 15 tombstones being present at the site in early July 1918.

Although the park plan was approved by the city’s park board in January 1920, efforts to replace the site’s monuments with small markers was a lengthy process, as nine graves still had monuments on them as late as July 1922.

This tombstone-like marker provides details about the New Helvetia Cemetery, which once sat where Sutter Middle School is located today. / Valley Community Newspapers photo, Lance Armstrong

This tombstone-like marker provides details about the New Helvetia Cemetery, which once sat where Sutter Middle School is located today. / Valley Community Newspapers photo, Lance Armstrong

The remaining tombstones were eventually removed and the park became known as Helvetia Park.

However, the fact that most of the graves were still located at the park was not entirely lost, as the park remained a cemetery, included markers, and many of the city’s annual directories listed the site as Helvetia Cemetery Park.

The site remained a park until the early 1950s, and in the mid-1950s, the remains of 5,235 people were removed from the park and relocated to other local cemeteries, in anticipation of the construction of Sutter Junior High School – presently Sutter Middle School – at 3150 I St.

Greek Orthodox Church has long history in the capital city

The Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation has a rich history in the capital city, including nearly 60 years in East Sacramento.

The Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation has been a part of East Sacramento since its opening in 1951. (Photo by Lance Armstrong)
The Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation has been a part of East Sacramento since its opening in 1951. (Photo by Lance Armstrong)
Many East Sacramentans are familiar with the large, Byzantine-style church and its accompanying Hellenic Center at the northeast corner of Alhambra Boulevard and F Street, across from McKinley Park. But the church’s history in Sacramento predates this historic site.

But taking a step back prior to the church’s establishment in Sacramento, county records indicate that Greeks had a presence in the city as early as 1890.

From 1910 to 1920, no more than 50 Greek families resided in the Sacramento area. And of these families, the majority of the men were employed by the Southern Pacific and Western Pacific railroads.

Although there was no Greek church in the city during this time, the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church – the mother church of Greek orthodoxy in the West at the time – served as a relatively nearby active presence for the church.

Also during this era, liturgy was occasionally celebrated in Sacramento through clergy of San Francisco and later Los Angeles, with the first of these liturgies being held at Red Men’s Hall at 716 I St.

 

Constructing a church

The first official step toward establishing a Greek orthodox church in Sacramento occurred with a Jan. 18, 1920 meeting, which was held at the Pythian Castle at 831 I St.

Tom Mantis, president of Elpis, a then-6-year-old, independent Greek fraternal organization in Sacramento, initiated the meeting, which was designed to organize the Greek Orthodox Community of Sacramento.

By Dec. 20, 1920, the community had been formed and members of its first board of trustees were elected.

The following year, the first Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation was constructed at 620 N St.

The first liturgy in the new church was held on Dec. 25, 1921, under the direction of Father Sardounis.

A Greek school was established at the N Street site in a two-story Victorian in the mid-1920s.

The school, which was held following classes at local elementary and middle schools, was located on the ground floor of the building.

East Sacramento resident Penny (Anton) Kastanis recalled attending the school during the late 1940s.

“The school had desks that we sat at like in a regular school room and the classes were quite often taught by the priest or the priest’s wife,” Penny said. “Father Econome was one of my teachers. We all had books that we would purchase and they were all in Greek. They were like a first grade book with things like the alphabet, stories and poetry.”

The priests of the church resided on the second floor of the school building.

Additionally, the second floor of the school building was home to Nicholas Terzakis, the church’s caretaker during the 1920s.

Penny said that she continues to remain friends with former students of the school and added that the site of the original church and the school was very much “the center of both religious and social activities for the Greeks of Sacramento.”

Helen (Sady) Psihopaidas said that she remembers a unique aspect of the old N Street church.

“They had singing birds on both sides of (the nave of) the church,” Psihopaidas said. “They were hanging in regular-sized bird cages and there were about five on each side of the room. It was quite a unique sight.”

Penny, who also remembers the birds, said that the birds, which she suspects were canaries, were covered during liturgies, so that they would not interrupt the chanting, singing and other parts of the liturgies.

 

Parish and parishioners

With the founding of the church in Sacramento, a popular annual Greek picnic was established in 1922.

Terry Kastanis holds an original running tape of contribution amounts collected for the construction of the East Sacramento church. (Photo by Lance Armstrong)
Terry Kastanis holds an original running tape of contribution amounts collected for the construction of the East Sacramento church. (Photo by Lance Armstrong)
By the early 1930s, the event, which was held at Helvetia Park in West Sacramento and included food, games and a beauty queen contest, was drawing about 2,000 Greek-Americans from Sacramento and beyond.

Another Greek event was the Greek Independence Day ceremonies, which honored the Greeks’ freedom, as a result of the 1820s war that eliminated the Turkish control of their land.

In Sacramento, the event was celebrated every March 25 with special liturgies, banquets and dancing.

During World War II, members of the church supported the Greek War Relief and the Red Cross.

An article in the Dec. 9, 1940 issue of The Sacramento Bee, for instance, showed that by this time, Greeks in the Sacramento area had raised as much as $10,000 to assist war victims in their native land.

Eventually, the old N Street church became inadequate to meet the needs of the growing parish and efforts were made to establish a new church building and recreation hall, known as the Hellenic Center, on property that the church purchased across from McKinley Park.

In 1949, George E. Johnson, who many longtime Sacramento residents remember for his Del Prado Restaurant, organized a fundraising drive, which resulted in the collection of about $48,000.

The Hellenic Center, which is located to the south of the Alhambra Boulevard church, was the church’s first building constructed at the site.

Shortly after its construction, this building, which has hosted many events throughout its history, was temporarily used for church liturgies and the offices of the priests.

 

Charting growth

The new church was completed in the fall of 1951 and held its first liturgy in the building with its pastor, Father Nicholas Karas.

Penny Kastanis sings during an event honoring a bishop’s visit in about 1954. The event was held at the Hellenic Center, which is located just east of the church. (Photo courtesy of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation)
Penny Kastanis sings during an event honoring a bishop’s visit in about 1954. The event was held at the Hellenic Center, which is located just east of the church. (Photo courtesy of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation)
New church offices were also constructed along N Street in the 1950s.

Many of the icons and other important pieces from the original church were placed in the new church.

These pieces included various paintings that are still located in the church today.

Overall, the cost of the land and its buildings was $318,211.

And this was money well spent, considering that the church has operated for well more than a half a century at this site.

In recent years, a drive to construct a new church building to replace the current church building in Sacramento has thus far been unsuccessful.

A plan to build a church in South Natomas fell short in 1993 and the property was subsequently sold.

Through this sale, the property’s former owner, Angelo Tsakopoulos gifted the church $1.1 million, which was used to purchase the remainder of the block at the Alhambra Boulevard site.

Prior to this purchase, the church owned half the block.

 

Expanding and exploring

Currently, members are split between the options of demolishing the present church building and constructing a new church in its place or building a new church on an 8-acre site in the 48-acre McKinley Village development, just east of the current church.

Terry Kastanis, the parish’s librarian who met Penny at the Alhambra Boulevard church and married her a year later in 1961, said that no matter what its members decide, the current economy has the new church project on hold. However, the church did move forward with a plan to construct a preschool and childcare center at the church site. The center is now open and operating 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday. For more information on the preschool, call Annette Chavez (916) 231-9173.

Undoubtedly, the Greek community is not only known for its historic East Sacramento church complex, but also for its Greek Festival, which is held each year at the Sacramento Convention Center.

This year’s edition of the festival, which is the city’s third largest drawing event, will be held September 3 through 5.

Eugene Fotos, 77, who was raised in East Sacramento and attended both locations of the church, said that he is proud of the church’s long history in the capital city.

“We’ve been here for a long time and have grown a lot since we were on N Street,” said Fotos, whose nephew, Father James Retelas, is the current pastor at the church. “We used to have about 40 people come to the church on N Street and now we get about 200 on average and sometimes about 300. I look at it as a big family and you don’t have to be of Greek descent. We welcome everybody.”

 

E-mail Lance Armstrong at lance@valcomnews.com.