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For Rosemary Leyva, mapping the graves in San Jose Cemetery is a labor of love. It’s about family and history.
The eight-acre cemetery, which contains thousands of graves, is located at 100 N. Espina Ave. and is the oldest cemetery in Las Cruces. It’s one of two cemeteries managed by St. Genevieve’s Catholic Church, which is next door to San Jose Cemetery and across the street from Saint Joseph Cemetery.
“I see so much of history here,” said Leyva, who has been working with José Tapia and volunteers from the Doña Ana County Genealogical Society and others to create a map of San Jose Cemetery’s graves to help family and friends find their relatives buried there since 1859. Leyva also has spent several months scanning St. Genevieve’s cemetery records.
The cemetery includes the remains of some of Las Cruces’ earliest residents, most prominent families, the last person hanged in Las Cruces and veterans of the wars Americans have fought in for the last 160 years.
“I like working here,” said Leyva’s project partner, Jose Tapia.
“It’s beautiful here,” he said.
“It’s very peaceful,” Leyva added.
She, Tapia and the other volunteers began working early mornings in May and had put in more than 100 hours collectively on the project by June 1, when they had completed mapping graves in two of the cemetery’s four garden sections. The cemetery also contains a large historic section that is home to Martin Amador and his family, members of the Barncastle family, the Armijo family and many others who are well known in the history of Las Cruces.
Here you can find the grave of Adolphe Lea of the 1st U.S. Dragoons, for whom nearby Leasburg Dam State Park is named; and Eugene Van Patten (1857-1926), of the U.S. Cavalry, for whom Van Patten Avenue in Las Cruces is named. You’ll also find the grave of Theodore Rouault, who owned Las Cruces’ first cannery and invented a plow, Leyva said.
Here, Leyva also tends the grave of her great-grandfather, Baltazar Madrid (1865-1922), one of Las Cruces’ first residents. The headstones for her family members are easily recognizable because their crosses are titled at 15 degrees, Leyva said.
Here also is the grave of Frank C. Brito (1877-1973), the second-to-the-last surviving member of the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry (Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders).
You can also find the grave of the Rev. Father Andres Echallier, who carved the crucifix that hangs over the altar inside St. Genevieve’s, Leyva said. He even carved his own coffin.
The earliest recorded burial at the cemetery is Maria Magdalena Cordero, age 12, who was buried there May 11, 1859. That’s the year St. Genevieve Church began keeping vital parish records.
In many cases, grave markers were constructed by hand by family members of the deceased, Leyva said. Many of the other graves have no headstones and some aren’t even marked. Some grave markers have been vandalized – kicked over, run over with vehicles or broken into pieces. Some made of wood have been damaged by termites. Some have simply suffered the ravages of time and weather.
Many graves have been lovingly restored by volunteers like Leyva and Tapia and others from St. Genevieve’s, the genealogical society, Eagle Scouts, Knights of Columbus and even U.S. Army soldiers stationed at White Sands Missile Range.
Wood for hundreds of new crosses erected in the last year came from lumber companies and even from scrap lumber left over when Leyva renovated her carport.
San Jose Cemetery is the final resting place of rich and poor, children (including almost 100 babies) and adults, soldiers and priests, the famous and the unknown. There was a Catholic section, a Protestant section and even a potter’s field, although religious affiliation didn’t matter when it came to burying someone there, Leyva said.
Leyva said she got interested in the cemetery’s restoration after her father died in 2004.
“I needed something,” she said. “I come here and walk because it’s so peaceful.”
As of 1912, the cemetery had 3,352 burials, Leyva said. No bodies have been buried in the cemetery since then, although cremated remains have been allowed burial there, she said.
The cemetery is open to the public 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
For more information, call St. Genevieve’s Catholic Church at 575-524-9649.