Flanking both sides of St. Mary of the Annunciation Catholic Church at 89 Hasell St. downtown are more than 500 tombstones making up the church’s 200-plus-year-old graveyard.
Until recently, though, there was no way to locate who was buried where other than by walking among the memorials and reading the inscriptions on each headstone.
With the help of College of Charleston graduate students, who used church records and FARO laser scanning to survey the site, St. Mary recently created a database that cataloged who is buried on the grounds. The process, which took about a year, included creating an online map that directs people to the exact location of their deceased loved ones.
“Now when people call, we just direct them to the website and tell them to scroll through,” said Father Gregory West, the church's pastor.
This is a statewide issue, according to Dr. Jonathan Leader, the state’s archaeologist. If asked, many churches can’t quickly pinpoint where a specific, deceased parishioner is buried.
While the federal Works Progress Administration surveyed many church graveyards and recorded tomb inscriptions for churches in 1937, these records were not tied to a searchable index map, according to Professor Frances Ford with the college.
To find a grave slot, most families relied on memory.
Today, archiving the grave markers has made it convenient for St. Mary worshipers who want to pay their respects to their ancestors, especially where tombstones have broken apart or the inscriptions faded over centuries.
“This is sacred ground,” Leader said. “(A graveyard database) is something that has not been done in a lot of places. It’s something that needs to be done sooner than later.”
Nathan Betcher, a former College of Charleston graduate student who helped archive gravesites at St. Mary, agreed.
“It’s good to be able to reach back in the past and get back at your roots,” he said.
While the feat is rare for churches, some are making efforts to help parishioners locate their ancestors' graves. Last year, graduate students from the college also helped Mother Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston catalog deceased parishioners buried near Magnolia Cemetery off of Huguenin Avenue.
The church graveyards contain parishioners with unusual stories.
Emanuel's cemetery, for example, includes Confederate veteran Louis Middleton, a grave that seems out-of-place given Emanuel's past as a historic black church.
The former slave served alongside his master in the Civil War, his veteran benefits later enabling him to acquire a free tombstone.
St. Mary’s graveyard is also home to several Confederate soldiers, in addition to priests who hailed from Portugal and France.
“It’s an international flavor to that cemetery," Betcher said.