Cemetery volunteer says he needs help from public
DJ Becker/The Madera Tribune
Marshall and Shirley Padilla discuss the sad plight of the New Hope Southern Baptist Cemetery, and hope to rally some community support to ensure the basic maintenance of the historic 2-acre plot of ground containing the remains of 22 veterans and early farming residents from the area.
A lifelong Madera couple, Marshall and Shirley Padilla, are hoping to raise awareness and gather some community support with the ongoing maintenance of a historic graveyard known as the New Hope Southern Baptist Cemetery. The couple has seven extended family members buried there, but Marshall, 86, has been involved with maintaining the cemetery for the last 60 years or so and now wants to see the future of cemetery insured. Shirley, 82, fondly recalls living down the road on a nearby farm and attending church there as a small girl.
Marshall, a Korean War Air Force veteran has voluntarily sprayed, scraped and shoveled all the weeds he can, especially from the graves of the World War I, World War II and Korean War veterans, and also tries to tend the graves of the children buried there, but the heat and weeds are now winning. The Padillas also place small flags donated by the VFW and The American Legion on the graves of the 22 veterans buried there each Memorial Day. He also knows the names of the most of the dead from memory, and even some of the circumstances and life stories of the people buried there.
The dusty and dry two-acre cemetery on the corner of Avenue 11 and Road 21 1/2 in Madera County is easy to miss. The desolate patch of ground may contain as many as 100 graves and is surrounded by orchards and vines, and lacks even a road sign or a proper street address. There is no grass to mow. A now leafless, small almond tree in the corner of a grave has lost its fight with drought. A family member will occasionally stop by to leave a memento or plastic flowers, but even those visits have become rare.
The cemetery was once operated and tended by a Southern Baptist Church which stood near the corner. The local branch of the church reportedly faltered in the later years, became vacant and the plain wooden structure was razed by a suspicious fire in the late 1970s, and never rebuilt. Some recent burials have continued under unknown circumstances.
The Padillas, long-time Catholics, said their family covered their grandparents’ graves with concrete many years ago, but the remaining plots are slowly being overtaken by time and neglect. “We’d like to see somebody take care of it and keep it up.” Marshall said. “I get started out there (scraping weeds) and I look up and see one more (weed covered) grave I should do. Then I haul off the weeds. You want to see people’s loved ones taken care of ... but the problem is everyone has died and the kids have moved or don’t want to do it. This last year I had some medical problems and I didn’t get a chance to spray, so the weeds got away from us. It would be nice to get some help out there. Maybe overdue.” he said.
“Bill Roberts and Dexter Wisener and a few others also helped take care of the cemetery for years, but they have since passed away. They deserve a lot of the credit,” he said.
The Padillas said that with the Southern Baptist Church no longer being active on the property, who actually owns or administers the cemetery now is a mystery. Vandals have broken head stones and used the desolate place for bizarre voodoo rituals, and squatters have now become a problem camping on the property.
Over the years, the Padillas said, they have written letters to the editor, made calls to the cemetery district and reached out to different local officials, agencies and other groups, but to no avail. Liability issues also complicate the maintenance situation. The property was also apparently incorrectly listed on Madera County tax roles and was nearly placed on the delinquent tax list and sold for back taxes, until staff at the Assessor’s Office realized the error and corrected the problem. “Then the nice gals from the Assessor’s Office even came out and brought flags and decorations for the cemetery fence on Veterans Day,” which was so appreciated, they said.
Ironically, Marshall, an accountant by occupation, employs a gardener to maintain his own tidy acreage about 5 miles away, but said he’s just unwilling to give up on the historic cemetery and it’s maintenance for now.
The Padillas are hoping The County of Madera, the cemetery district or other community groups will come forward and help with sorting out the ownership situation and with the basic, ongoing maintenance. “I’ve done about all I can do. I can hopefully ... still do the north side, and the veterans and the babies for a while longer. But it’s now time for someone else to help. We’d just like to see cemetery taken care of in the future.”
With no one else left to weed and tend the graves, the future of the historic cemetery remains uncertain.
If you can help, please leave a message for the Padillas at (559) 674-7822.