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New Orleans, La. -- When people die in New Orleans, many are laid to rest at the foot of Canal St. The intersection at City Park Avenue is a sort of neighborhood of cemeteries. "It was relatively high ground for the time, and that's the reason the cemeteries are located where they are," said Michael Duplantier, who's researched one of the city's most historic cemeteries that's listed on the National Register for Historic Places.
"It's the only cemetery in this city you can drive by and not know what's in there, and it creates an interest because of its mystery," said Duplantier.
Large, white walls on two sides hide what is Odd Fellow's Rest, a smaller, private cemetery the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, an international fraternal organization built way back in 1849. "It was built originally for the Odd Fellows members... the members as they deceased and their families of course," explained Duplantier. But he said burials expanded beyond that at the height of the yellow fever epidemic when hundreds of people were dying daily. Some of them were buried in vaults that on the inside make up those large walls, blocking the view of the public.
"It's disrespectful to the people who are buried here to let it get this bad," said Angie Green, Executive Director with Save Our Cemeteries, a non-profit that works to preserve and protect historic cemeteries. Green pointed out the condition of the 164-year-old cemetery.
It's defied mother nature, including more than a century of hurricanes, yet broken face plates exist throughout the cemetery. In some cases, they're missing altogether. We found an exposed vault, holding a small, cast iron casket, possibly a child's casket, among what appears to be human remains.
"This cemetery has had a lot of vandalism in the past, and once you start opening a tomb, it allows water infiltration, and just like in a house, that's terribly damaging so the tomb will decay much faster and you'll see a lot of vegetation growth like trees and shrubs growing out of the tops of tombs," explained Green.
She said individual families are responsible for the tombs, but the Odd Fellows Grand Lodge of Louisiana, the cemetery owner according to the La. Secretary of State, is liable for overall maintenance. The problem is, there's not many Louisiana Odd Fellows left, at least not in this part of the state. Duplantier said that's been the case for too long. "This is a cemetery that has been stressed for about 100 years," he said.
Now there's concern over the integrity of one of the two wall vaults. "Right now there are fully grown trees growing out the top of the tombs, and they're threatening to collapse onto City Park Avenue, and I worry about people walking on the sidewalk there," said Green. "This looks like this is going to fall in, but a lot of people get off the street car and come this way, and I go to work at Delgado... so sooner or later it's going to cave in," said one New Orleans resident.
On the Canal Street side, the adjacent Herb Import Company shares the cemetery's address. It's property the general manager said they lease from the Odd Fellows.
It's the only cemetery in the city with rental income, but that may only be enough to cover minor maintenance like grass-cutting... not the kind of money Save Our Cemeteries says it would cost to shore up the walls that are in jeopardy. "Just taking care of the wall vaults alone... none of the tombs inside of the cemetery... you're looking at more than $2.5 million dollars," said Green. Save Our Cemeteries doesn't have the resources to restore the place, but it wants to lend a hand in ongoing maintenance.
"Legally, Save Our Cemeteries is not allowed to do work in the cemetery without their permission, and we want to bring volunteers in here to do work so we were using the Attorney General as a way to contact them," said Green. Even after getting the state's top prosecutor involved, the non-profit never could track down an Odd Fellow in the Louisiana leadership... that is until now.
While our FOX 8 crew gathered video in the cemetery, we ran into Jon and Joy Petersen. Jon happens to be a past Odd Fellows Sovereign Grand Master, essentially former president of the entire global organization, which provides aid in 28 countries. "I have been sent here on a mission by the international organization to assist the chapters here in Louisiana to see what we can do to get this restored and back in good condition," he said.
The Petersens drove to New Orleans from out of state and say they were shocked at what they found inside the walls. "I was not happy with the condition of it," explained Jon Petersen. He said what's happened here is not a good representation of the Odd Fellows and all the good they do.
"Our motto is bury the dead, educate the orphans, take care of the widowed," said Jon Petersen. While many of their cemeteries around the country were turned over to communities, the Odd Fellows shifted their focus to support many charities. Still, this forgotten fraternity in New Orleans wants to resurrect Odd Fellow's Rest.
FOX 8 put the Odd Fellows in touch with Save Our Cemeteries. Duplantier called it "serendipitous!" The next day, the Louisiana Grand Secretary, Raymond Buteau, Sr., drove to New Orleans from New Iberia for an impromptu meeting. "We formulated a plan basically to hire some construction type people to do restoration work on a lot of the vaults and what not... where there's been some damage," said Jon Petersen.
Save Our Cemeteries agreed to bring in volunteers to clean up the vegetation and work to track down and preserve records of who owns which plots. As for the wall vaults, the Odd Fellows say they're looking to tree experts to decide how to go about removing some of the trees that are doing the most significant damage. "We might not be able to replace it or anything but at least stop it from falling and deteriorating," said Jon Petersen.
Buteau tells FOX 8, with the help of their tenant, The Herb Import Company, the Odd Fellows have a bright future in NOLA. "I just signed up about 15 of them," said Buteau. "We are in the process of setting a new local lodge here. They will be adopting this cemetery as their project," said Jon Petersen.
Odd Fellow's Rest, they promise, within weeks will start receiving the TLC it needs and deserves. "It shows the entire spectrum of the history of an entire city from about 1850 to the present and that's important… Cemeteries tell a lot of stories," said Duplantier.
If you'd like to lend a hand and volunteer to clean-up Odd Fellow's Rest, call Save Our Cemeteries" at 504-525-3377. The non-profit plans to start the cleanup next Saturday, June 1.
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