By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — Deplorable. Disgraceful. Embarrassing. A neglected mess.
Those were of some of the words used by neighbors and city councilors last night to describe the appearance and condition of Hilldale Cemetery — a historical burial ground where dozens if not hundreds of military veterans are buried.
City Council took up the condition of the privately-owned cemetery at the request of resident Marguerite Carifio, who lives on nearby Jeffrey Lane.
“They were doing a very good job for the first few years and I applauded them,” she said of the Hilldale Cemetery trustees, who took over the site in 2009. “But then all of a sudden it came to a halt. I understand they don’t have much money, but if they opted to take it over, they need to keep it mowed and cleaned.”
City Councilor Michael Hart said he visited the cemetery recently to judge its condition for himself.
“I could not believe the deplorable condition it was in,” Hart said. “There is overgrown brush and shrubs covering every grave. It’s a completely neglected mess and it’s such a shame.”
Carifio also told councilors the gated entrance is kept locked at all times, keeping vehicles from getting inside.
“I’ve seen people park out on the street and have to walk in to see their relatives,” she said. “I recently saw some people who walked in and couldn’t even find their relative’s grave due to the mess.”
The cemetery has suffered from not only poor upkeep, but also vandalism and illegal dumping in recent years.
The council agree to invite Thomas Spitalere, chairman of the cemetery trustees, to an upcoming meeting to discuss the board’s plan for maintaining the property. Hart said he would also send a letter to City Solicitor William Cox to see if the there are any laws the city can use to force the trustees to do better.
“I was appalled by what I saw and I want to hear from the cemetery board,” said Councilor Thomas Sullivan, who also toured the property recently. “The board’s job is to keep the cemetery looking good and I want something done.”
Spitalere was unable to attend last night’s meeting. But in a phone interview after the meeting, he said volunteers recently mowed half the front of the cemetery, and that they hope to finish cutting the rest of the grass in the front section within the next few days.
“My volunteers are 60 and 70 years old,” Spitalere said. “So how fast we can get it done depends on the weather.”
Spitalere said his board is developing an area on the property to sell new burial plots. That would give the trustees money to take better care of the grounds, he said, adding he expects the new section to be ready by late fall.
The board keeps the gate locked to keep out vandals, Spitalere said.
“Every time we open it, gravestones get knocked over,” he said. “But if someone wants to get in, all they have to do is call me and someone will let them right in.”
Councilor John Michitson said improving the cemetery is going to take a community effort.
“People in the community are going to have to step up if we are going to fix this,” Michitson said. “My first thought when I saw it was that I’m glad my father or mother isn’t buried there.”
Councilor William Ryan called on Mayor James Fiorentini to take a leadership role in finding a solution.
“The mayor needs to lead this,” Ryan said. “There are personalities and politics behind this, but this is sacred ground. I can’t believe the mayor won’t call the trustees and work with them to help raise some money to take better care of the place. The mayor has the power to it. We can fix this overnight if the mayor puts his mind to it.”
Carifio and another person at the meeting said they went to see Fiorentini to ask his help, but that he would not speak to them about it.
“As soon as I said Hilldale Cemetery, the mayor closed the door in my face,” Carifio said.
Fiorentini and Spitalere have had several political spats over the years, going back to when Spitalere was chairman of the city’s Conservation Commission, until he was replaced by the mayor.
Since taking charge of the cemetery in 2009, Spitalere said he and other volunteers have spent countless hours mowing the grass, picking up trash, removing brush and downed tree limbs, and working to clear the central lawn area as a future burial site.
He said they have also had to combat vandalism, including several fires that were intentionally set and damaged gravestones, fence posts that were spray-painted, toppled headstones, and trespassing by riders of dirt bikes and other recreational vehicles which tear up grassy areas.