Facelift in the works for Codman Cemetery

You probably never look at it, but Rev. Dr. Victor Price and Paul Malkemes do every day.

They are determined to turn the ivy-laden eyesore of rusted fences, decayed trees and dissipation known as Codman Cemetery into a magnetic, manicured haven for residents and curious historians throughout Codman Square and beyond.

Progress has already begun, thanks to the work of more than 330 volunteers from the Boston Project &endash; a Christian community ministry on Elmhurst Street, spearheaded by Malkemes, that seeks to renew urban neighborhoods &endash; and its partnerships with the Urban Ecology Institute and Pastor Price of the Second Church of the Nazarene on Moultrie St., which owns the cemetery.

Tangled vines, grass clippings, stacked trunk sections, fresh tire marks, and swept walkways characterize the 160-year-old graveyard and attest to its initial re-beautification after decades of neglect and abuse; and this is only the beginning of a three-year "master plan," according to Malkemes.

"This place is a legacy; it's a gem of the community," said Price, sweat beading on his forehead as he stood outside the cemetery last Tuesday. "Our responsibility is to restore it to the point where the community is proud. There's a vision of the cemetery being used as a relaxation spot," he added before imagining out loud the benches and flowery trees he hopes will line the football-field patch of graveless grass running along Norfolk Street.

This vision and the cemetery's current condition are far cries from the graveyard David Tierney grew up with.

As a Dorchester native, Tierney has attended the church since he was eight, before it turned Nazarene in 1991, and remembers when it was administered, maintained, and documented by church officers in the 1950s.

Then the community changed as whites began moving out of the neighborhood, and the congregation dropped from 1,400 members in 1941 to 22 in 1990, according to Tierney. The church now has 250 members, according to Price.

"I crawled around this cemetery when I was eleven, twelve, thirteen years old," Tierney said, long before someone stole the bronze plaque off Rev. Dr. John Codman's obelisk and before diseased trees and overgrown weeds hid kids who would drink, vagrants who would sleep in the tombs, and even grave-robbers who once broke into Codman's tomb in the 1960s and left his and his wife's bones scattered along the ground.

"That's what puzzles me," Price said, staring at the discolored rectangle where Codman's plaque used to be screwed into the stone shaft. "What did it say? The history's gone."

"Last year it was, 'Hey, let's make it so we can see back there,'" Malkemes said, pointing to the depths of the cemetery where he contracted poison ivy while helping other volunteers clear vine-choked fences and cut down nearly 100 small trees for visibility and safety reasons. "Now it's, 'Let's beautify the largest open space in the Talbot-Norfolk Triangle with flowering trees and shrubs native to Dorchester,'" he said.

The group is making a conscious effort to restore a sense of history to the area by resuscitating the regular chronicling of the cemetery and those buried there with surnames like Fuller, Gleeson, and, obviously, Codman, the first pastor of the Second Church who gave up his rose garden for the cemetery, according to Tierney.

An ironic aspect of this history revival will be "the creation of a virtual cemetery" &endash; a new website &endash; "so the world can visit the historic burying ground from near or far," reads a written statement by Malkemes that also mentions "developing a historical tour and map for the burying ground."

Beginning this summer, a Boston Project youth program called the "Park Patrol" will work with church volunteers to utilize a $2,000 grant the Urban Ecology Institute has given to the revival project that will pay for the help of a professional urban forester and new tree and plant material.

As the three men sauntered under the sultry sun in the graveyard last Tuesday, evidence of its impending progress could be heard in the hammering and pounding going on behind the graveyard, where New Horizon Development is restoring a group of condominiums.

Malkemes said some construction workers were nice enough to volunteer their Bobcats and trucks to uproot several of the cemetery's diseased trees. "It was an example of neighbors coming together," he said.

Designed in the shape of a pair of angel wings that are outlined by concrete pathways, Price said the cemetery would become "a place that symbolizes light and life."

All parties agreed that ultimate progress would take about three years, whereupon upkeep and maintenance will be necessary to prevent decay.

"It can be such a beautiful place," Price said as birds chirped in the remaining foliage. "The whole community seems to be lifting."

To volunteer with the Boston Project, which does everything from clothing and furniture drives to homework help for kids, or to become involved in the cemetery's restoration, contact Paul Malkemes at 617-929-0925 or the Second Church of the Nazarene at 617-825-2797.