One man’s losing battle to save a historic Philadelphia cemetery

One of America’s oldest cemeteries is quietly crumbling away in Northwest Philadelphia.

Many headstones lean because of sinkholes. Acid rain has made nearly 80 percent of the inscriptions unreadable surmised Bill Ochester, who heads a restoration committee for St. Michael’s Lutheran Cemetery in Mt. Airy. “I get a lot of requests for genealogical research. I can’t help many people because most of the stones have been obliterated.”

What makes Ochester really upset is that many times the damage is done by vandals.

Ochester recounted a time two years ago when he and his son spent a hot summer day working in the cemetery repositioning 10 headstones. “The next day when I came out every single one of them was pushed over again.” he told, “And so that stuff is very frustrating.”

 

Notable Internments

The people buried at St. Michael’s are not just early Philadelphians, but are in many cases some of the neighborhood’s founding fathers such as Hans Jurg Ruger (surname later changed to Rex), who settled the area in 1691.

Also laid to rest here is Jacob Anthony Hinkle who in 1746 built Chestnut Hill’s historic Mermaid Inn.

Walking along the cemetery’s front pathway, one can easily find the vault of Michael Billmeyer, the historic Germantown printmaker. Billmeyer’s house, still standing at 6505 Germantown Avenue, is said to be the site where Washington commanded the Battle of Germantown.

Also among the interred is Elizabeth Fry Ashmead Schaeffer. In 1859 she founded an orphan’s home, which later became the Germantown Home and now serves area seniors as part of the NewCourtland network.

Numerous soldiers are buried in St. Michael’s cemetery. There are seven from the War of 1812 and 23 who served in the Civil War, including Lt. William Tourison, and brothers Capt. John Nice and Sgt. Henry Nice – casualties of the Battle of Gettysburg. There are also at least nine Revolutionary War soldiers, including Maj. James Witherspoon and four unknown soldiers who lost their lives in the Battle of Germantown.

 

General Washington baker

“One of the neater guys here,” according to Ochester, is Christopher Ludwick. Credited with bringing the first gingerbread to Philadelphia, Ludwick was appointed Baker General by Washington and in charge of supplying bread for the Continental Army. He is believed to have designed field bake ovens capable of producing a daily supply of 6000 hard tack loaves.

Letters from John Hancock to General Washington illustrate that Ludwick was instrumental in a plan to convert Hessian soldiers to the American cause.

Ludwick’s enduring legacy is that of generosity. He remained in the city during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793 to bake bread for the poor and is credited with paying for the freedom of three slaves. Christopher Ludwick’s original will bequest of $13,000 toward the education of poor children is a charitable trust that is still active.

The Christopher Ludwick Foundation awards grants amounting to approximately $250,000 each year.

 

Lack of funds

There is currently no fundraising campaign for the cemetery and, like many dwindling parishes, St. Michael’s is experiencing financial struggles. The church’s pastor, Rev. Andrena Ingram estimated the congregation size to be 30 to 35 people. She keeps the sanctuary of the church closed from Nov 1 until Palm Sunday because of enormous heating costs.

“It’s extremely difficult to generate interest. The cemetery really is of very little importance to most people.” Ochester lamented. “These are not just the Revolutionary War heroes and Civil War people, but you have a lot of citizens who have made a vast difference to the community buried here.”

 

Outreach

While St. Michael’s is part of the Germantown Historical district, neither the church, nor its cemetery are part of Historic Germantown’s 15 member consortium. Carolyn Faris, program coordinator for Historic Germantown noted that the increased attention to St. Michael’s historical significance could be a help to future fundraising efforts.

Other area historic cemeteries have created preservation boards. “That would be the logical thing to do.” advised Eugene Stackhouse, former president of the Historical Society of Germantown and also on the board for Germantown’s Hood Cemetery. Rev. Ingram stated such an effort “would entail someone with passion willing to commit to seeing it through.”

It is interesting to note that, unlike Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy does not have its own historical society. There once existed a Mount Airy Historical Awareness Committee as a joint project between West Mount Airy Neighbors (WMAN) and East Mount Airy Neighbors (EMAN), but former co-chair Jim Duffin disclosed that it dissolved about 10 years ago.

Although the current state of St. Michael’s Restoration Committee is “pretty much dormant,” Ochester expressed that he would consider holding a work party in the spring if enough volunteers came forward with support and commitment. He indicated that much of the work involves smaller tasks that people could assist with at their own pace.

“There are just a lot of stones that have been vandalized and pushed over, and it’s a shame that we can’t get a body of people to put in 4 hours here.” Ochester remarked.

Volunteers may reach Bill Ochester at ochie1@aol.com.

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