Monday, April 8, 2013

Anchored Souls in St. David's Cemetery

You know how every once in awhile you can feel “their” presence? In this case, they were those of Revolutionary War-era personages. I had to write this down as soon as I returned from St. David’s churchyard cemetery, with the mud still wet on me boots.

I’d read about this graveyard in Allan Heller’s book, Philadelphia Area Cemeteries (2005), so after years of knowing it was there somewhere on the Main Line, I finally made the trip. No more than an hour’s drive from center city Philadelphia, St. David’s Cemetery is near the Devon Horse Show grounds in Devon, Pennsylvania. You’d never find it without a map (see map here), GPS, or detailed directions. It’s a couple miles south of the Horse Show grounds on Valley Forge Road. The cemetery is nothing you would ever casually drive past. St. David’s is so far into the elite estate grounds of Wayne, PA, that the cemetery keepers probably never have to worry about vandalism (except for the local rich kids who apparently shot holes in the glass rear window of one of the few mausoleums). This is not just an old rich section of suburban Philadelphia, it is colonial. Fields and stone property walls, all in museum condition.

Lichen-covered mausoleums at St. David's Cemetery

Heller's book on Amazon
I was unprepared for the size of the cemetery – it is much larger than I expected. It has 1800s-era mausoleums with slate roofs, 1700s-era headstones as well as burials from 2012. There are many military buried here, from all wars including the War of the Revolution. Washington’s brilliant lunatic General "Mad" Anthony Wayne is buried here. There are giant evergreens shading the majority of the cemetery. Most headstones and monuments, as a result, are moss-covered. Even the stand of five old mausoluems which are built into the hillside like a barrier wall for the graveyard, are green with lichens and moss. (The mausoleums, oddly, had slate roofs!) It wasn’t gloomy, as the sun was setting during my visit on this mid-winter day, but the silence was indeed creepy. You can feel the weight of history here.

General "Mad" Anthony Wayne tomb with St. David's modern church beyond

The parish has a large and active churchyard cemetery, with plots available only to parishioners of St. David’s Episcopal Church (the modern church and associated buildings are across Valley Forge Road from the cemetery and chapel, at 763 S Valley Forge Rd, Wayne, PA).

Welsh dragon and castle engraving on monument
The parish and church originated with Welsh colonists shortly after they settled into the area, dubbed, “Radnor” (after the Welsh county of Radnorshire) in the late 1600s. My Mom’s family being Welsh, I felt a special affinity for this place. Saint David, by the way, is the patron saint of Wales. His famous last words, which today are a common Welsh saying, was, "Do ye the little things in life" ("Gwnewch y pethau bychain mewn bywyd"), the assumption being that a lot of good smallish acts of kindness add up to a life well-spent.

The cedar shingle-peaked fieldstone wall surrounding the older section of the cemetery was green and moss-covered – you get the idea that the architecture here is exactly the same as it was in 1776, with the exception of indoor plumbing and electricity. In fact, according to St. David’s website, “The church building provided shelter for soldiers of both sides,” referring to the role played by the cemetery’s little chapel during the Revolutionary War. There was certainly much less activity during my visit - this was rush hour on a Tuesday, but I can’t remember more than one car going down the road in the hour or so that I was there. The various gates to the cemetery were all open, but there wasn’t a soul around.

1715 Chapel in background
Everything was impeccably kept up, and Christmas decorations still adorned some of the graves. Traces of snow lingered from a falling earlier this week, but as the weather had turned warmer, the ground was mostly just mud and squishy grass. Many cemeteries in and around Philadelphia have Revolutionary War-era graves, but this place has the most I’ve ever seen.

Wolf-tables abound, as do many well-preserved marble headstones.
Many of the older broken stones had been cemented back together with care. Family plots with well-known Philadelphian surnames are well-maintained. Although the grounds were brightly lit by the setting winter sun, the tall and voluminous evergreens put most everything in deep shadow. Most of the flat slabs were covered with a slick slime of pine needles, mud, and ice. I slipped off one that I should not have been standing on, trying to photograph the epitaph.

 When I noticed a sign on the maintenance shed at the border of the cemetery that said “Bathroom Out of Order,” I realized that I had to use a bathroom. You know how that sort of conditioning goes – you look at your watch and its noon, so all of a sudden you’re hungry? Maybe the chapel had a bathroom, I thought.

The quaint, stone chapel stands at the end of the main walkway as you enter the cemetery. This is the original church building which, according to the St. David’s website, has been in continual use as a church since 1715. As I passed its large side windows, I saw a movement inside of the well-lit interior – possibly a man wearing a long dark waistcoat moving quickly in the direction of Valley Forge Road. I went to the door, opened it and glanced in - I figured it was the sexton and I would ask to use the “room.” It’s a small chapel, one room, but there was no one there. I called out. No answer. I had definitely seen movement inside. Just one of those cemetery things, I guess.

Chapel windows facing Valley Forge Road
You can really feel the age of the building when you’re standing inside, the entire complex being as quiet as a grave. While searching for information on St. David’s Cemetery on the Internet, I was surprised to find that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow actual wrote a poem about this small church building in 1880, entitled Old St. David's Church, Radnor. His description of the chapel and surrounding grounds is very similar to mine, and nearly as eloquent. Perhaps it was an “anchored soul” to which Longfellow refers in the last line that I caught glimpse of through the chapel window?

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow - Old St David's at Radnor

What an image of peace and rest
Is this little church among its graves!
All is so quiet; the troubled breast,
The wounded spirit, the heart oppressed,
Here may find the repose it craves.

See, how the ivy climbs and expands
Over this humble hermitage,
And seems to caress with its little hands
The rough, gray stones, as a child that stands
Caressing the wrinkled cheeks of age!

You cross the threshold; and dim and small
Is the space that serves for the Shepherd's Fold;
The narrow aisle, the bare, white wall,
The pews, and the pulpit quaint and tall,
Whisper and say: "Alas! we are old."

Herbert's chapel at Bemerton
Hardly more spacious is than this;
But Poet and Pastor, blent in one,
Clothed with a splendor, as of the sun,
That lowly and holy edifice.

It is not the wall of stone without
That makes the building small or great
But the soul's light shining round about,
And the faith that overcometh doubt,
And the love that stronger is than hate.

Were I a pilgrim in search of peace,
Were I a pastor of Holy Church,
More than a Bishop's diocese
Should I prize this place of rest, and release
From farther longing and farther search.

Here would I stay, and let the world
With its distant thunder roar and roll;
Storms do not rend the sail that is furled;
Nor like a dead leaf, tossed and whirled
In an eddy of wind, is the anchored soul.


References and Further Reading

Read about the origin of the Welsh dragon, the symbol of Wales
St. David's Episcopal Church website