SAN ANTONIO — A campo santo once rested on land now occupied by Milam Park and The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio. Translated literally as “holy land,” from 1808 to 1860 it served as San Fernando Cathedral’s cemetery, filled with Native Americans, home-grown Tejano settlers, Canary Islanders and soldiers who fought for Santa Anna.
The San Antonio Express-News reports gravestones listed people with names that still ricochet through history — Seguin, Esparza, Navarro. But the old cemetery was crowded by a growing city and, in the 1920s, during a single 24-hour period, graves were hurriedly exhumed and reburied at San Fernando Cemetery No. 1 on the West Side.
This month, bones found last September led to the discovery that the remains of as many as 70 people still might be buried there, delaying work on a planned prayer garden at the hospital.
Archaeologists called in from the University of Texas at San Antonio now are combing through a strip of land about 35 by 250 feet along Houston Street, immediately east of the towering mural by artist Jesse Treviño, where an older Santa Rosa Hospital entrance once stood.
The hospital was founded in 1869 by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word. For years after the cemetery was moved, some San Antonians wondered if anyone had been left behind in the rush.
In the late 1990s, those suspicions were confirmed when the remains of a few individuals were discovered during work at Santa Rosa.
In September, during the final phase of a $135 million hospital renovation, construction crews spotted bones and stopped an excavator that was installing plumbing for the prayer garden’s water feature, said Dana Rohman, who’s coordinating the project.
“All work was immediately halted,” she said.
Hospital officials summoned a medical examiner, then consulted lawyers and archaeologists. At first, officials believed they had found no more than three individuals.
“We reached out to UTSA to identify the history of the site and for the respectful removal of those remains,” Rohman said. “Our focus is to be respectful and honor what that space originally intended.”
UTSA archaeologist Shawn Marceaux said his team’s field work began April 4 and could last a few more months before all potential remains are located and moved to a campus lab. Analysis there could extend to mid-September, he said.
The excavation, by hand and machine, so far has yielded a few 1-meter boxes of dirt and bone fragments, Marceaux said. He expects his team will collect 50 to 75 boxes by the time it’s finished.
“So far, it doesn’t look unusual in the context of what we know of Spanish colonial burial practices,” Marceaux said. The “big surprise” was how many individual remains are suspected to be in the area, he said.
The longest bone fragment found so far, a femur, is about 8 to 12 inches, Marceaux said. The team also has found wood fragments, coffin hardware and a few buttons from clothing. “But that’s it,” he said.
The hospital had not announced the September findings until taking out a legal classified ad in the San Antonio Express-News after asking a state district judge in January to allow the removal of skeletal remains for reinterment elsewhere.
The petition, filed by hospital attorney Nicki K. Elgie, stated the obvious: That no cemetery organization operates the abandoned graveyard and that there’s no “reasonable manner” that Christus Santa Rosa Health Care Corp., could identify the interred individuals or their descendants.
The court’s final order March 22 gave the hospital permission to remove the remains, at the time still believed to be three people. Elgie said the order “contemplates removal and reburial of all remains identified pursuant to UTSA’s explorations, regardless of number.”
The petition also dropped the property’s legal designation as a cemetery, which won’t change how the hospital handles any future discoveries, Elgie said in an email. “In the unlikely event that remains are identified after the completion of the present undertaking, CHRISTUS Santa Rosa would return to the courts for permission to disinter the remains” in accordance with state law, she said.
The hospital already had shown its plan to the Bexar County Historical Commission and Texas Historical Commission. Neither intervened. Rohman, who noted that the oldest hospital in the city has close ties to the city’s Catholic heritage, said officials at the Archdiocese of San Antonio were notified of the discovery and “were satisfied with our plans for relocation.”
A Catholic pastor will be required to consecrate the spot at Sunset Memorial Park where the remains will be reinterred.
Marceaux said the team has dug to a depth of 5 or 6 feet and it will be months before it sifts through all the dirt. UTSA recently had two field workers on site but will have four or five before the work is completed. Another two to three archaeologists will be involved in the lab work, he said.
Such discoveries aren’t uncommon in downtown urban areas, Marceaux said, especially for a former cemetery. He has worked on similar projects elsewhere.
And when the work finally is done, the area that once was part of a campo santo will again serve a spiritual purpose.
Information from: San Antonio Express-News, http://www.mysanantonio.com
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