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Old St. Mary Cemetery in Gilroy: Secrets of the Grave and a Window into the Past

The Old St. Mary Cemetery in Gilroy is a hidden cemetery with a wealth of history and mystery that not even most locals know about. This is the perfect spot for history buffs or “tombstone tourists” (also called taphophiles—those who have a passion for visiting cemeteries) to visit Gilroy’s people of the past.

a black iron fence and gate with a dirt path lined by rocks into a cemetery

This cemetery, which is tucked away in an older part of town with neighborhoods built around it, contains the resting places of well-known founding families of Gilroy and surrounding areas (including John Gilroy, the city’s namesake). While it is undergoing some renovation and upkeep, it is still a place to find intriguing historical gravestones. The history there is even more interesting when you learn about the cemetery’s origin and a little about some of those who are buried there. The cemetery is open to the public.

a picture of a graves at a cemetery

Old St. Mary Cemetery

 

San Martin Chapel & Cemetery & the Murphy Family

Before the Old St. Mary Cemetery and St. Mary’s Parish in Gilroy existed, there was another church that preceded it. In 1844 Martin Murphy, Sr., an Irish Catholic, brought his family to the south Santa Clara Valley, where he purchased a large amount of land and established a rancho. In 1853, Murphy, Sr. suffered a great loss when his son Bernard Murphy (35) and his son-in-law Thomas Kell (23) both died in April 1853 due to the boiler explosion on the famous Jenny Lind, a 61-ton steamboat they were traveling on for business across San Francisco Bay.

black and white photo of an older man in a suit with bowtie

Martin Murphy, Sr.

 At the time of their deaths, the nearest Catholic churches were in San Jose and in San Juan Bautista, and Murphy, Sr. had them buried at the San Jose location. Due to the distance Murphy, Sr. had to travel to visit the church and the graves of his son and son-in-law, he donated a portion of his land for a Catholic church and cemetery to be built upon. He chose four acres on his property that were somewhere in the foothills beyond the current New Ave. and Church Ave., possibly in what is now part of Coyote Lake Harvey Bear Ranch County Park.

a plaque with the list of those who died on the steamboat Jenny Lind

Thomas Kell & Bernard Murphy’s names are on the third row

Once the cemetery was established in November 1853, Murphy, Sr. had his son Bernard and his son-in-law Thomas Kell relocated there, where his family could visit their graves more easily and other neighboring Catholic families could attend mass at a more convenient location. The little chapel was finished several months later and named San Martin after Saint Martin of Tours, Murphy, Sr.’s patron saint.

Unfortunately, the little San Martin chapel burned down in April 1877. By then, over 20 bodies had been buried in the cemetery there, including other Murphy family members. It is recorded that 22 bodies were relocated to the “newer” Catholic cemetery at the Old St. Mary Cemetery in Gilroy.

 

Old St. Mary Cemetery & St. Mary’s Parish in Gilroy

a marble monument with a black cross saying Old Saint Mary Cemetery

The Old St. Mary Cemetery was established by the St. Mary’s Parish in Gilroy in 1865. Father Thomas Hudson, who was serving as pastor at the San Martin Church in 1864, realized that most people were settling in Gilroy. He purchased 15 acres in Gilroy for a new church and cemetery, and the church building was built on Monterey St., close to where The Oaks Motel is located today. Father Hudson dedicated it in December of 1865. (Father Thomas Hudson is also buried in the Old St. Mary Cemetery, alongside a couple of his sisters, who also served in the church.)

an old tombstone with a cross

Father Thomas Hudson’s tombstone (name on upper right) shared with his sisters

The cemetery—still in its original location—was finished and blessed by Father Hudson in November of 1866. At the blessing, he also oversaw the first burial at the site for a three-day-old infant named Jose Castro.

St. Mary’s Parish would be moved to the corner of Monterey and First. St. in 1926, where it would undergo many more remodels, additions, and teardowns over the years. A whole new church structure was built on the site in 1965, which remains today. The Old St. Mary Cemetery has remained it its original location all these years, just a short distance from the current St. Mary’s Parish (see below for specific directions.)

 

Recognizable Names in Old St. Mary Cemetery

John Gilroy

a marble grave monument with John Cameron Gilroy and his info. written on it in black

John Gilroy, our city’s namesake, is buried in the Old St. Mary Cemetery. John was originally born John Cameron in 1794 in Scotland to Duncan Cameron, who was Scottish, and Jane Gilroy, who was English. John supposedly ran away to sea around 19 years of age aboard an English ship, the Isaac Todd, that was headed to Astoria, Oregon, to take over a rival post.

After sailing around the Cape Horn, the ship eventually arrived in Monterey on January 15, 1814. There are differing reports on how John came to stay in the area. One states he was ill with scurvy and remained behind on land until he fully recovered, during which time his ship departed. The second tale is that John somehow got into trouble with a commanding officer of the ship, so he faked sickness to be sent ashore to recover, escaping shortly after and remaining in hiding until his ship left.

Somewhere along the way, John changed his name to John Gilroy, perhaps to avoid capture for leaving the ship unlawfully. Either way, John made his way from Monterey to the Gilroy area, which was then a Spanish-settled rancho area called San Ysidro. Soon after his arrival, he was baptized into the Catholic church, and he learned to speak Spanish like those around him.

John Gilroy statue in downtown Gilroy

Statue of John Gilroy in downtown Gilroy

John was a cooper by trade, which is someone who makes wooden casks, barrels, or other containers out of wood that is heated to make it pliable. For several years, he performed this work in the area. At one point, he was taken aboard an English ship and traveled up north along the coast. He eventually headed back down the California coast on another ship and worked at some of the mission towns. In October 1819, he was granted permission from Spain to become an official citizen and to marry.

In 1821, John returned to the Santa Clara Valley. He married Clara Maria de la Ascension Ortega in March of 1821. They had 17 children together, 8 of whom lived past their childhood. Clara’s father, Dong Ygnacio Ortega, came from a wealthy Mexican family that was one of the first Mexican settlers in California. Ortega owned the San Ysidro Rancho, granted to him by the Spanish government. The land spanned 13,000 acres, including a portion of today’s city of Gilroy. Upon Ortega’s death, Gilroy and his wife Clara received a third of the property.

In 1833, John became a naturalized Mexican citizen under Mexico’s rule. He even served as an alcalde, or mayor, of his district, and then a justice of the peace in 1846 after California became a territory of the U.S. John became a naturalized U.S. citizen by 1848. During the next couple of decades, John had to sell a lot of his property to make ends meet, and several of his adult children passed away. While accounts differ on how much property he owned, after his death, it was established that he had around over 1,000 acres of land, worth over $10,000.

a marble monument with black lettering for Clara Maria Ortega

John’s wife Clara passed away in January 1869, and while she isn’t buried at Old St. Mary’s Cemetery, there is a tombstone to commemorate her. John passed away from rheumatism at 76 years of age in July of 1869. His tombstone is fairly easy to spot. Keep an eye out for a few of Gilroy’s children and descendants, who are also found in the cemetery.

a wooden cross for Nicodemus Gilroy

Burial site of John Gilroy’s son, Nicodemus Gilroy

To learn more about John Cameron Gilroy, you can purchase a book in the California Welcome Center Gilroy.

 

Jose Maria Amador

a picture of an older man in black and white

Jose Maria Amador is another well-known person buried in Old St. Mary’s Cemetery. Amador City, County, & Valley in California are all named after him. Jose was born to Spanish settlers in San Francisco in 1794. He was a Spanish soldier and explorer. In 1835, Amador was granted over 16,000 acres of land from the Mission, called Rancho San Ramon, and there he made leather, soap, saddles, blankets, shoes and wagons with the help of Mission Indians. He became very wealthy. In 1848-1849, Jose discovered gold along the creek that is now named after him, along with the city that grew up around the creek. He was able to establish a successful quartz gold mine in this area. Amador passed away in 1883, when he was living in Santa Cruz County, and he was buried in the Old St. Mary’s Cemetery.

a great tombstone for Jose Amador with a ceros in each upper corner

Barbara Sierra/Serra Solorsano

Barbara Sierra (or Serra in some records) Solorsano, who is buried in the Old St. Mary Cemetery, was the last full-blooded San Juan Indian or Mutsun healer/medicine woman. Born in 1834, her name Barbara Sierra/Serra was given to her when she was baptized at the San Juan Mission. Her father was baptized Junipero Serra, named after the well-known Father Junipero Serra—the first Spanish priest to build a mission in California.  Junipero’s Amuh Mutsun name was Chachititer. He was the leader of the San Juan Band (later renamed the Amuh Mutsun Tribal Band), acting as a peacemaker between different tribal groups at the Mission, a representative to the government, and also the alcalde (or mayor) of the Mission. When he died, Barbara took on his role as the leader of their tribal band.

Barbara married Juan Miguel Solorsano, a coffin maker at the San Juan Mission. Both of their graves are not far from the cemetery’s entrance and are marked by wooden crosses. Barbara died in 1913, and her husband died just a few days after she did. Their daughter, Ascencion, said it was because he was heartbroken at Barbara’s passing.

a wooden cross in the dirt with Barbara Solarsano on it

Barbara was also the mother of well-known Ascencion Solorsano de Cervantes, born in 1855, who was also a medicine woman. She lived in Gilroy for many years, where she practiced her healing medicine. 

Ascension was considered the last to speak the language of the Amuh Mutsun. Before she died, she was interviewed for several months by John Peabody Harrington, who wrote down and recorded the language, stories, and songs of her native Amuh Mutsun heritage. While the records with the recording broke in transit, the notes from these recordings are found in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Ascencion passed away in 1930 and is buried at the San Juan Bautista Mission.

Catherine O’Toole Murphy Dunne

Catherine Dunne is also buried at the historical cemetery. At one time, Catherine Dunne was the richest female land owner in California, with property covering large portions of what is today Morgan Hill to Gilroy. 

She was originally Catherine O’Toole, a daughter of Irish immigrants, who came to the area via Canada. She married Bernard Murphy in 1851, and they lived on his 4,000-acre land near Gilroy. As mentioned previously, he died on the Jenny Lind in 1853. She was left with their only child, Martin J. C. Murphy. Catherine went on to steward well the land she inherited from Bernard.

a black and white photo of a young man with dark hair

Martin J. C. Murphy, son of Catherine Dunne & her first husband Bernard Murphy

In 1862, Catherine met and married a wealthy Irishman, James Dunne, and they had three children—Mary, Peter, and Kate. In 1782, Catherine’s son Martin Murphy, a promising young man, died at 19 years old in Washington, D.C., where he was attending Georgetown College (now University.) His remains were brought back to California, and he was buried next to his father, Bernard Murphy, in the Old St. Mary Cemetery.

Three gravesites in a cemetery

Left-right: Bernard Murphy, Catherine Dunne, & Martin J. C. Murphy

Catherine suffered further loss when her second husband James Dunne died in 1874, and she gained even more land and inheritance. 

Despite her difficult losses in life, Catherine continued to carefully manage all of her property and assets. She also became known over the years for her great generosity, giving large donations to St. Mary’s Parish to help fund land purchases and building costs for the church and schools there.

Catherine lived a long life, passing away in 1926 at 96 years of age. Her tombstone is noticeable and located next to that of her first husband, Bernard Murphy, and her son, Martin Murphy. Their graves are located just to the right of a large tombstone commemorating several members of the Dunne family, her second husband’s family.

a large monument at a cemetery with the Dunne name on it

Several Dunne family members are buried at Old St. Mary Cemetery

Interesting Facts

  • The monument for John Gilroy and the monument identifying the cemetery were both made from St. Mary’s marble altar that was destroyed in the 1989 earthquake.
  • John Gilroy’s wife is not buried in the cemetery. It is believed she is buried in San Jose, but the location is up for debate. (Another mystery to pursue?)
  • The names and dates of those buried reflect the historical immigration of different people groups into the area—the Irish Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Mexican. Most local native Americans were buried at the San Juan Bautista Mission’s cemetery. The few here most likely had their names changed to Spanish ones (which was often the case at that time), so they aren’t identifiable by name alone.
  • Not everyone buried at Old St. Mary Cemetery is Catholic. In the 1970s, the church entered a ten-year contract with the county—for income—to bury a certain number of indigents (those who couldn’t afford a burial). They’re all in a section along the fence on the western side of the cemetery. They’re easily spotted, as the style of their markers are all the same.

Burial spots contracted through Santa Clara County

  • Perhaps the saddest sections of the cemetery are the two sections where children were buried. One section is marked, and one is not. 
  • All burials have the heads to the west and feet to the east.
  • The newer St. Mary’s Cemetery on First St. in Gilroy was built in 1915; the first person buried there was James Codiga in 1915.
  • Some people were moved from Old St. Mary Cemetery to the newer St. Mary’s Cemetery location.

Veterans Honored

two gravestones with small US flags by them

It was recently discovered that several veterans had been buried here. So far, two of them have been identified by name (Edward Leonard, who died in 1914, and his son, Ignatius Leonard, who died in 1928). To honor them for their service, volunteers installed a flagpole with an American flag—with lights—by the cemetery’s marble monument stone with the cemetery’s name on it. 

 

a momument for a cemetery with a US flag behind it

Mysteries that Remain

Local history and genealogy buff Dave Peoples has been working hard to pore over various records and plot maps to identify those who are buried in the Old St. Mary’s Cemetery, including many who are unidentified because their headstones or markers have been lost or stolen over the years. He has been marking the areas of those who were unmarked or without borders around their burial site. While he has been able to identify many grave sites, and he is currently working to identify more.

Maintaining the Cemetery

The care of the cemetery is only done by volunteers. It is still the property of the Diocese of San Jose. Current and recent volunteers include Evening Gilroy Rotary and the Knights of Columbus. About six years ago, an ad-hoc committee (made up of a collaboration of different local groups) added fencing.

Getting There

This cemetery is close to St. Mary’s Church on First St. & Monterey St. It is accessible by the alleyway between Church St. and Hanna St., across Church St. from St. Mary’s Church, just after Gurries Dr. if you’re heading north from First St. Because of its alley location, it has no street address.

On GPS maps, the cemetery can be found under “Saint Mary Church Cemetery” or “Old St. Mary’s Cemetery.” Don’t confuse it with the newer “St. Mary’s Cemetery” in Gilroy at 1000 First St. 

Walking Tour of Old St. Mary Cemetery

Typically, once a year the Gilroy Historical Society leads a free docent-led walking tour of Gilroy’s historic Old Saint Mary Cemetery. The tour usually goes from 10:00 a.m.-12 p.m. Reservations are recommended but not required. Check out their schedule at Gilroy Historical Museum.

More to Explore

For more historical points of interest in Gilroy, check out History Highlights in Gilroy . Amid your historical pursuits, you’re sure to need some sustenance. Continue your history-themed adventures on a Historical Dining Tour, which includes dining in some historical buildings downtown, along with learning their fascinating history. You’ll need more than just a day to explore all the interesting history that Gilroy has to offer, so book a comfortable and affordable hotel for a quick getaway. 

While you’re here, be sure to stop by the California Welcome Center Gilroy. Our friendly staff can help you pick the perfect place to eat or pass the time. We also have unique gifts and souvenirs of your trip to Gilroy and the Golden State.

Acknowledgement: A great thank you to local history and genealogy buff Dave Peoples of Gilroy for his time and effort in providing much of the information about the cemetery and resources that made this blog possible.

Bio photo of Dave

Dave Peoples

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