St. Lawrence Cemetery undergoes restoration

(Miscellany/Christina Lee Knauss) Bob Dickson looks at the dates on a gravestone at the St. Lawrence Catholic Cemetery in Sumter recently. He is a regular volunteer in the efforts to restore the campus.

(Miscellany/Christina Lee Knauss) Bob Dickson looks at the dates on a gravestone at the St. Lawrence Catholic Cemetery in Sumter recently. He is a regular volunteer in the efforts to restore the campus.SUMTER—St. Lawrence Cemetery, a quiet resting place for generations of Catholics, lies behind an arched iron gate off Oakland Avenue. 

Even though it’s been open since the early 1900s, many people don’t even know the place exists.

For the past 16 months, volunteers from the Sumter Catholic Community, which encompasses St. Anne and St. Jude churches, have been working to change that.

“This cemetery is a hidden treasure for Catholics,” said Redemptorist Father Thomas Burke, pastor of the community.

The priest spearheaded the restoration effort and over time, he and a dedicated group of volunteers have braved heat, briars, mosquitoes and poison ivy as they work.

They cut away thick azaleas that obscured the entrance, spread tons of dirt to level the ground and planted new grass. Volunteers repaired shattered headstones, then cleared and restored a section where infants and young children are buried. Brush and dirt from other burials had covered the existing graves.

Now, the infants’ section is tidy and markers are clearly visible, and a stone pays tribute to several children buried there who cannot be identified. A statue of Mary, moved from St. Jude, is a memorial to the victims of abortion.

“When we started, that section was in the most deplorable condition, and we wanted to make it the most beautiful part,” Father Burke said.

Miscellany/Christina Lee KnaussVolunteer Bob Dickson, who attends St. Jude, told the story of a woman who came to the cemetery one day while they were working near the babies’ graves. She said she was there to visit the grave of her little brother, who had died more than 40 years ago.

“She was shocked to finally be able to see the grave for the first time,” Father Burke said. “Stories like that make all this worth it.”

Dickson said he has always cared about the cemetery because his son is buried there. He started working on the grounds two days a week after he saw Father Burke clearing brush by himself.

“It is so difficult to explain what it looked like nearly two years ago compared to what it looks like now,” he said.

Sylvia Lawler, a member of St. Anne and the church historian, said the restoration of St. Lawrence enables people to learn more about the history of Catholicism in a part of the state where they have always been in the minority.

According to church records, Bishop Henry P. Northrop purchased the land from Salena B. Walker for $400 in March of 1891. Before that, Catholics were buried in a cemetery downtown. Fifty-five graves from that cemetery were relocated to St. Lawrence when it opened in 1909.

St. Lawrence is the final resting place of some of Sumter’s earliest Catholic citizens, including many Irish immigrants.

One of those is the Tuomey family, which has a large monument in their honor. Timothy J. Tuomey was a local philanthropist who left money in his will to start Sumter Hospital in 1913. It became the 288-bed Tuomey Regional Medical Center, which now serves patients in three counties.

Work on the cemetery continues. Space near the front has been leveled and cleared for a columbarium because Father Burke said more people are asking to be cremated. The cemetery has 200 burial spaces left. It is still used by members of the community.

The goal, the workers said, is to honor Sumter’s early Catholics and create a special place for the community.

“They just want to make it a beautiful place for people to come, to pray and be with their loved ones,” Lawler said.