Gatsby author's final resting place is at St. Mary's Cemetery, Rockville
Tuesday, July 20, 2010 9:13 AM
When you stand in the middle of St. Mary's parish cemetery in Rockville, you seem almost lost in time.
The gravesite of F. Scott Fitzgerald includes a capstone with the closing words from his novel, "The Great Gatsby."
Legacy of faith at St. Mary's in Rockville stretches nearly 200 years
BY LYNNEA PRUZINSKY MUMOLA
Special to the Standard
When stopping by the historic St. Mary's cemetery to visit the grave of F. Scott Fitzgerald, visitors to the Rockville parish can also surround themselves with almost 200 years of a living legacy of faith. From the original church built in 1817 - and named to the National Register of Historic Places - to the nearly 60-year-old elementary school, the parish community of St. Mary offers tradition, welcome and a connection to faith and God.
"There's always people here praying," said Joan Madaras, pastoral assistant and parishioner for about 20 years. In addition to three daily Masses in the older chapel building, adoration takes place immediately following the 9 a.m. Mass until 5 p.m. Monday through Friday throughout the year.
Today known as the Chapel of Our Lady, the original St. Mary's church building is Rockville's oldest church in continuous use. The building faced demolition during the early 1960s to make room for new worship space, but a telephone and letter writing campaign by local Catholics and non-Catholics alike convinced officials to preserve history.
"It is only in the light of recent happenings that the archdiocese has become fully conscious of the depth of endearment (residents) ... have for the venerable little church building," Bishop John J. Spence, then-chairman of the Building Commission for the archdiocese said at a meeting held in 1966. A new modern church was erected in 1967 next to the original.
The chapel, which is also used for weddings and funerals, underwent a complete and painstaking restoration in 1999. Pews, kneelers, lighting fixtures and even original hat hooks were removed, restored and returned. In addition to two awards from the city of Rockville's Historical Society recognizing excellence in maintenance and restoration, Cardinal James Hickey, then the archbishop of Washington, named the chapel a Pilgrim Church of the Millennium for the Jubilee Year 2000.
Madaras said current parishioners along with their pastor, Msgr. Robert Amey are preparing to celebrate the parish's bicentennial. Established as a parish in 1813, the parishioners hope to mark their 200th anniversary in a way befitting the church's legacy both in the archdiocese and in the city of Rockville. "We want the celebration to be spiritual, historical and community-based," Madaras said. Although no firm plans have been set, the pastoral associate noted the church's integral connection with Rockville and the desire of the parish to include the city in part of the 2013 celebrations.
Today the parish serves approximately 2,600 families and nearly 300 students attend preschool through eighth grade. In the mid-1980s the archdiocese's Victory Housing developed a project to turn the school's second-floor convent into Mary's House, a home for the frail elderly.
With just about two centuries as a faith community, there is a rich sense of American history at St. Mary's as well. A parish timeline noted that in 1828 immigrants involved in building the C&O Canal were buried in the cemetery and in the 1860s, it was common to find Civil War soldiers in uniform attending daily Mass. According to one parish history, gas lights were first installed in 1902 and later replaced with electric ones in 1929.
Earlier in 1963 on the eve of parish's 150th anniversary, Father Robert McMain noted in a parish history that the life of the church included growth and fruition. "We pray that our own labors in the same vineyard of faith may, a century and a half from now, excite some of the respect and reverence that we feel today for the accomplishments of the priests and parishioners who have gone before." The parishioners are already one third of the way to achieving the priest's goal.
Later at a Mass commemorating the parish's 175th anniversary, Cardinal Hickey praised the faithful as spiritual descents of the parish's original members. "You hand on not just a historic tradition, you hand on a living faith."
The city's mayor at the time, Douglas Duncan, told the Catholic Standard, "People care about each other here. We try to keep that hometown spirit in everything we do." Duncan, a St. Mary's parishioner, later served as Montgomery County executive.
Twenty-five years later those thoughts continued to be echoed at the parish as Madaras called the sense of family an important reason her workplace is special. "There is a lot of family tradition here," she added.
One of the city's busiest intersections - the conjunction of Rockville Pike and Veirs Mill Road - tuns right by this graveyard. Stately oak trees muffle the constant roar of traffic and shade the faded tombstones from the glare of nearby high-rise buildings.
Probably the most famous tombstone in this tiny cemetery is that of Jazz Age writer F. Scott Fitzgerald. He is best known for his books Tender is the Night, The Great Gatsby and This Side of Paradise. But today, even his grave has a story to tell.
Fitzgerald's connection with Montgomery County comes from his father, who was born in 1853 in a farm near Rockville. Although his parents settled in Minnesota, Fitzgerald occasionally visited an aunt in Rockville. He returned there in 1931 for his father's funeral.
Fitzgerald's grave has not always been at St. Mary's. When he died of a heart attack in 1940 at the age of 44, he was buried in Rockville Union Cemetery. He was allegedly denied burial near his parents in the church cemetery because he was not a practicing Catholic and his books were then on a list condemned by Church authorities.
Thirty-five years after his death, his daughter Frances "Scottie" Lanham Smith and a Rockville civic group requested that Fitzgerald's body be joined with his parents at St. Mary's.
Fitzgerald's daughter gleaned from her father's writings that he wished to be buried near the rest of his family. A letter to his secretary in Baltimore reads, "I belong here, where everything is civilized and gay and rotted and polite. And I wouldn't mind a bit if in a few years Zelda and I could snuggle up together under a stone in some old graveyard here. This is really a happy thought and not melancholy at all."And, in his novel Tender is the Night, the protagonist says after his father's funeral, "The next day at the churchyard his father was laid among a hundred drivers, dorseys and hunters. It was very friendly leaving him there with all of his relations around him." This excerpt, often considered autobiographical, was published two years after Fitzgerald attended his father's funeral.
Late in October of 1975, the bodies of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald (who had been buried next to her husband in 1948) were dug up and reinterred in the family plot at St. Mary's.
Approval of the reburial came from then-Archbishop William Baum of Washington. In a written statement, he described Fitzgerald as "an artist who was able with lucidity and poetic imagination to portray the struggle between grace and death. His characters are involved in this great drama, seeking God and seeking love."
Now the pages are closed: Fitzgerald's only child, "Scottie" was buried with her parents in 1986. She once described St. Mary's cemetery as "a quaint oasis in this otherwise turbulent world."
A polished gray capstone covers the ground over the Fitzgerald gravesite, which is inscribed with the closing words from The Great Gatsby: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
Today a large banner hangs on a streetlight visible from Veirs Mill Road pointing out the cemetery where the well-known author is buried. Recent visitors to the site have placed mementos on or near the inscribed capstone including an empty bottle of wine, a small silk bag with a drawstring, and a single tobacco pipe.
According to the parish, the grave is maintained by the city of Rockville's historical society. More information is available at www.peerlessrockville.org, including how to request a self-guided walking tour, "F. Scott Fitzgerald's Rockville: Rockville in the 1920s."