Volunteer groups clean up BR cemetery

Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON --  Jean Roan, left, of St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church, and Sara Olivier, with Together Baton Rouge, work Saturday to clean up Gilbert Memorial Park Cemetery on Greenwell Springs Road.
Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- Jean Roan, left, of St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church, and Sara Olivier, with Together Baton Rouge, work Saturday to clean up Gilbert Memorial Park Cemetery on Greenwell Springs Road.

Volunteers from Together Baton Rouge and St. Jean Vianney Catholic Church spent Saturday morning giving Gilbert Memorial Park Cemetery on Greenwell Springs Road a thorough cleaning to prepare it for a new caretaker.

The cemetery’s condition has deteriorated in the last decade after issues arose over its ownership. At times, the grounds have become so overgrown with weeds and littered with so much trash that many of the tombstones were no longer visible.

In October 2011, the state sued Lymus Washington, Gilbert’s overseer at the time, and accused him of operating the cemetery without a license.

Washington reached an agreement with the state in January to stop conducting business at the cemetery.

On Saturday, a group of about 15 volunteers spent about four hours walking from grave to grave and cleaning the tombstones of any weeds, leaves, grass and twigs.

The volunteers meticulously worked over each headstone so the names on all the graves could be seen again.

“We’re here to, hopefully, make a difference,” said Maria Parks, a member of St. Jean Vianney as well as Just Faith, a group within St. Jean Vianney dedicated to social justice. “It’s just a little one, but it’s baby steps (that count), and we know that.”

Together Baton Rouge has performed similar cleanups of Gilbert Memorial Park Cemetery in the past, including one last year.

Edgar Cage, a Together Baton Rouge leader and cleanup organizer, said the organization wanted to spruce up Gilbert Memorial before People Achieving Community Empowerment, a nonprofit community service organization within Community Bible Baptist Church, likely takes over as the cemetery’s “receiver,” or caretaker.

“Even before it gets turned over to a receiver, the people who are laid here at rest should be in an environment of dignity and peace,” Cage said.

The Rev. Lee Wesley, Community Bible Baptist Church’s pastor and a founding member of Together Baton Rouge, said there should be a court hearing within about seven to 10 days to decide if People Achieving Community Empowerment, or PACE, is awarded temporary receiver status.

Wesley said PACE is urging the state to take over the cemetery temporarily until a permanent receiver can be found.

“Our concern is helping to restore it back to respectability,” Wesley said.

Gilbert Memorial Park, which has been in operation for decades, is where Baton Rouge civil rights leader Gus Young Jr. was laid to rest.

The cemetery was among the best in the city when it was operated by Gilbert Funeral Home, Wesley said. But after Gilbert Funeral Home closed for business in 1995, the cemetery was rarely maintained, he said.

“Some of the graves have fallen in. Some of the graves were open with bones showing,” Wesley said.

“Many people still don’t know exactly where their loved ones are buried because apparently there was no record kept as to the plotting of the cemetery. It was absolutely deplorable.”

The cemetery looked far more groomed Saturday as a result of the volunteers’ efforts coupled with the Oct. 25 cleanup job done by East Baton Rouge Parish Prison inmates.

The inmate sessions were organized by Metro Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis, whose District 6 includes Gilbert Memorial Park Cemetery.

Collins-Lewis said she organized a similar inmate cleanup about two months ago.

Before the inmate cleanups, Collins-Lewis said, the graveyard’s condition was deplorable.

“Everything was overgrown,” Collins-Lewis said. “Weeds were probably about three or four feet tall. It was really bad.”

Collins-Lewis said she organized this cleanup and similar cleanups in the past because residents asked her about the problems with the cemetery shortly after she took office in 2009.

“I have family members over there,” Collins-Lewis added. “I have family that has other family members over there. I have a personal interest in it also.”