Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas in Bethlehem

I had heard about St. Michael's Cemetery in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania for a few years now and needed to see it for myself. What better time of year to go to Bethlehem than Christmas? I knew it to be an old cemetery on a hill overlooking the defunct Bethlehem Steel mill complex (which now houses a Sands casino). The drive from Allentown was easy enough, down Route 378 toward the Lehigh River. Some big place called Nisky Cemetery jumped off the map at me, but I only had time for my one destination on this trip - St. Michael's.

 Approaching the bridge over the river, I noticed a gigantic star framework on top of the mountain, overlooking the town. Must be the famed “Star of Bethlehem.” I tried to get a photograph, but I didn’t want to rear-end the car ahead of me. It must look rather impressive lit up at night – the star, that is, not the bridge. A bit congested here, traffic-wise. The cemetery was about a mile to the left up Fourth Street after I crossed the Lehigh.

On the right side of the road, St. Michael’s Cemetery rises at a steep grade, stretching about a city block or more up with the same amount of frontage. (For a satellite view, click here and click on the map tab). Note that the cemetery continues into the trees, which must have been allowed to grow wild after a point in the cemetery’s long career, which began in 1867.) Any cemetery built into a hillside simply has more character – it’s a very dramatic look. I parked my car on steep State Street alongside the cemetery and was greeted instantly by the graffiti on this mausoleum (below). 

St. Michael's Cemetery, Bethlehem, PA
I had heard that the cemetery was not in the very best condition (which I admit, is one attribute that will spur me to visit), but I was not quite prepared for what I saw. When you decide to explore a new cemetery, and you’re alone, you must decide where to begin. I decided on mid-hill, entering the grounds through a side entrance – wait – no, actually, this is the main entrance. A lowly narrow brick road that meanders up through the cemetery. Following it, I was able to look down the hill at all the – damage. You don’t really notice this from the street, looking up. The clandestine vandals who spray-painted the grave markers and mausolea did their dirty work on the uphill side of these structures, out of view of passersby.

Grafittied garages below St. Michael's Cemetery

Defaced headstone
As I hiked across the hillside, it was shocking to see that graffiti covered many of the monuments, headstones, and mausoleums. More than I have ever seen in any cemetery before – and I’ve visited hundreds. The same culprits tagged the same messages on neighboring buildings and garage doors, so it wasn't like they were targeting the cemetery. Granite is just another surface to deface, I suppose. Graffiti can be artistic, but there is a time and place for everything. I’m thinking the place for these people is prison.

St. Michael's Cemetery with Bethlehem Steel mill blast furnaces on horizon

You can see Bethlehem Steel, or what’s left of it, below the cemetery. The old gigantic blast furnaces tower into the sky along the river. It’s not a very Christmassy look. At two weeks before the holiday, I couldn’t help but notice the complete absence of any Christmas decorations. The only thing that came close was the red and green graffiti on this mausoleum, its original door replaced with cinder blocks, possibly due to theft. I also noticed, to my horror, many statues lying on the ground, pushed off their pedestals. In fact, save for a four-foot-high female mourning statue high up in the woods, all the statues in the maintained portion of the cemetery were on the ground.

Author Ed Snyder with grounded angel

When I say maintained, I mean that the grass is cut, there is no trash, and the grounds are perfectly safe and suitable for visitors. There is a Friends group of community volunteers called the “Friends of Saint Michael's Cemetery,” that is trying to help care for the property. On the Friends’ Facebook page they say that the group “hopes to raise awareness of the historic and cultural value of [Saint Michael's] Cemetery, generating interest and support for on-going preservation and restoration efforts.” What a job these good people have ahead of them! They deserve a round of applause for their efforts.

Graffitied mausoleum

Zinc grave marker
Why would they bother? Why should anyone bother? It’s all about respect, people. Not just respect for the dead, but respect for ourselves. This burial ground is part of our legacy. St. Michael’s is the last resting place of many of the Italian, German, Polish, and Slovak immigrants who once labored fiercely in the steel mills down at the river. Inscriptions in these various languages are evident on the monuments and headstones throughout the cemetery. 

St. Michael's history can be pieced together from short excerpts on the Internet – it was formerly the parish cemetery of St. Michael and then Holy Infancy, serving most of South Bethlehem’s Roman Catholics. The Lutheran church next to the cemetery has no affiliation with St. Michael's Cemetery, which is owned by the Holy Infancy Church (a few blocks west of the cemetery on Fourth Street). 

As I climbed the hill, noting the many toppled crosses and head stones, the wind began to pick up. It was cloudy, overcast, and about thirty-six degrees, the wind making it feel colder. An SUV came winding up the cemetery road. It parked and two women emerged. They spent about a half hour walking around. I was curious if they were members of the Friends of Saint Michael's Cemetery, and I should have gone up to them to ask, but I was too spellbound by the cemetery. It seems odd now as I think about it, but it was almost like the Stendhal Syndrome, where I just become so focused on my surroundings that I’m barely capable of processing new information. Captivating graveyards sometimes do this to me.

Graves continue on up the hill beyond tree line

About three-quarters of the cemetery is well-maintained and walkable – the lower portion, if you will. As you climb the hill toward the tree line, you begin to see grave stones and rusty plot fencing far up into the woods. And if the day is as chilly and windy as it was when I was there, you welcome the tree cover. I climbed up past a small zinc grave marker (shown above) – the only one of its kind in the cemetery, to my knowledge.

Plots with fencing in the wwods

I followed the graves into the woods, dried leaves and dead branches crackling beneath my feet. I spent about an hour roaming the hillside. Many of the individual graves were bounded by their own rusting iron fencing, something I don’t recall ever seeing in such quantity. Trees had grown through the center of family plots, breaking apart the granite coping and toppling headstones. Most of the grave sites in the woods were crumbling ruins. I assume this forested area (which accounted for maybe a quarter of the entire cemetery) had been allowed to grow wild some fifty years ago. Nature reclaims its own.

Tree growing in center of family plot
To my surprise, an all-terrain jogger passed above me in the woods – some sort of trail up above. I wondered if he even knew the woods below him were filled with graves. I wondered if he even knew the cemetery was there, or the efforts of the Friends group in trying to keep the place safe for people like him. I quote from the Friends of Saint Michael's Cemetery Facebook page:

“Please join us in raising awareness of this important historical resource in our community and its urgent need for restoration.”

Personally, I’ve always been a tad heavy-handed when it comes to this “raising awareness” stuff. I call it the way I see it and invariably, someone gets upset. But I feel that if you don’t put the photographs right out there where people can see them, the problems will continue. The public needs to be made aware. At that point, if they choose not to do anything about it, that’s their decision. But they can’t say they were unaware of the situation. If you’re very, very calm and diplomatic, people are less likely to pay attention.

"St. Michael’s Cemetery is the resting place for immigrants who came to America in the 19th & 20th centuries, many of whom worked at Bethlehem Steel & other local industries. The land for the cemetery was donated by Asa Packer in 1867 to create the first burial place in Bethlehem consecrated for the interment of Catholics. SM is an excellent representation of the diverse cultures that built our community – more than 25 nationalities are buried at SM. The Cemetery is also known for the nationally-recognized work of famous American photographer, Walker Evans, who made a series of photos in the Lehigh Valley during his time with the Farm Security Administration. One of his most acclaimed prints, the iconic, “Graveyards, Houses, & Steel Mill, Beth, PA, Nov 1935,” was taken at SM."

Walker Evans' 1935 photo above (ref), Ed Snyder's 2014 photo below
Now that’s interesting – Walker Evans was here in 1935, walking the same ground as me. A wonderful lesson in photographic history, that Evans saw this as an iconic scene to shoot for the Farm Security Administration. Asa Packer, mentioned above, along with Robert Heysham Sayre and Augustus Wolle built the mills on the Lehigh River in 1861 to provide steel for the railroads which brought America into the Industrial Age. Bethlehem Steel grew to be the second largest steel producer in America, until the 1960s when competition grew fierce. By 1995, the mill had closed.

Oh Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie ...

As I descended out of the trees into the open graveyard, the cold wind cut through my layers of clothing like I was wearing linen. It seemed colder than before. Fingertips numb inside my leather gloves, I balled them up to keep them warm. I glanced back and saw a female figure in the trees. It was a four-foot-high discolored marble mourning statue, a lone figure keeping her vigil over a lonely grave in the woods. This is, in fact, the last statue standing in the entire cemetery. I turned back downhill toward a tall monument with a circular platform at its top – what could this be?  I was shocked to see these white marble angel wings sticking out of the ground; the statue itself likely six feet tall (or rather, long, at this point).

Fallen angel statue, St. Michael's Cemetery

I left the partially-buried angel feeling a bit disturbed. I walked down through the lower part of the cemetery, as the light began to fade. At the front corner of the cemetery, at Fourth Street and State, sits an incredibly ornate Italian marble memorial sculpture of a leaf and vine-covered cross, fronted by the faces of a husband and wife. It is the same monument you see in the Walker Evans photo, at the bottom center of the scene (the one with the small cross). The monument is in fine condition, probably due to the fact that it and the entire front of the cemetery is raised about six feet off the Fourth Street sidewalk, with iron fencing atop a high stone wall. All this probably keeps most of the vandals out of the front section of the cemetery.

Author Ed Snyder with friends
At the front of the cemetery, fragments of Victorian-era ornamental metal fencing still mark the entrances to family plots, and many plots have large obelisks and monuments. There are four family mausoleums at St. Michael's. While hundreds, maybe thousands of the graves here belong to poor steel mill workers and 1918 influenza victims, it’s obvious that many of those interred were rather well-to-do citizens of Bethlehem. Citizens whose history is lost to the ages, and most likely lost on the three high schools boys who passed me as they cut through the graveyard on their way home from school.

Far be it for me to be judgmental with regard to why this cemetery, this memory garden, is in such condition. There are reasons why damage occurs, and reasons why ongoing maintenance drops off. I don’t know the financial condition of the owner, Holy Infancy parish. But since this is not an active cemetery (i.e., there are no new burials), then there is no income. I believe there have been no burials since the 1960s. Should there be money in trust to provide perpetual care? Probably. But considering that burial records were not even kept for the first forty-five years of the cemetery's existence (between 1867 and 1912), there were probably no funds allocated for ongoing care of the first graves.

Graves in the trees, St. Michael's Cemetery, Bethlehem, PA

I see beauty everywhere, and St. Michael’s Cemetery is quite a show piece. It should also be treated by us, collectively, with greater respect. With ongoing efforts by the Friends of Saint Michael's Cemetery, it could very well become the Star of Bethlehem. If you would like to learn more, visit, or help with the stabilization and restoration of the cemetery, please visit the Friends of Saint Michael's Cemetery Facebook page (click here). To make donations to the upkeep of the cemetery, please visit the website of Holy Infancy Church.

References and Further Reading:
A Short History of Big Steel and Bethlehem 
Bethlehem Historical Marker 
Friends of Saint Michael's Cemetery