Keeping Mount Moriah Cemetery, and its memories, alive

Paulette Rhone, president of the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, talks about the efforts of her group to restore the grounds of the cemetery from decades of neglect and overgrowth.

Amid bird whistles and early spring sun, Paulette Rhone heaves open the immense black iron gate of Mount Moriah Cemetery to visit her husband, who died in 1993 and is buried here.

"Hello, darlin', how are ya?" she says across the foggy green hills, with their yew and magnolia trees.

Rhone always knew she'd be tending her husband's grave. "He died from a heart attack. And a hard head," she adds with a wistful smile.

But she never dreamed that, decades later, she'd spend her retirement mowing, trimming, and tending literally thousands of graves at Mount Moriah, arguably the largest abandoned cemetery in the state of Pennsylvania.

Ken Smith, treasurer of the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, pulls his truck into the entryway at 6201 Kingsessing Ave. He and military historian Samuel Ricks join Rhone for their daily inspection of the place where local luminaries from Betsy Ross to a president of the Phillies were laid to rest.

A resident of the Northeast, Rhone is a retired Bureau of Labor Statistics analyst. After the cemetery was essentially abandoned in 2011, she became de facto head of the nonprofit friends group, a determined band of locals fighting to save it from overgrowth, dumping, crumbling gravesites, and a loss of collective memories.

"It's a microcosm of Philadelphia," she says of the roughly 200 acres.

Mount Moriah, which is in both Southwest Philly and Delco, closed in 2011 and entered a strange purgatory. Its caretakers ended business operations, and money for its care had gone missing.

"No one informed the state, the city, or the funeral directors that had worked with the cemetery that it would close," Rhone recalls.

The friends group and families of those interred there organized into a grassroots movement. And they're trying to enlist local churches, mosques, and even the National Register of Historic Places to help maintain it.

Friends of Mount Moriah maintains a registry of who is buried where. Those maps, family plot records, and other data are available online at http://friendsofmountmoriahcemetery.org or in city archives.

"Many times, we get phone calls from family looking for their ancestors, and we try to help them," Rhone says. Genealogy websites such as Ancestry.com and FindAGrave.com also bring inquiries.

First order of business: restoring Mount Moriah's gatehouse, designed by Stephen Decatur Button in 1855 and listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

Friends of Mount Moriah has raised the $35,000 necessary to stabilize the gatehouse through a GoFundMe campaign, a grant from the Mayor's Fund, and donations. Hidden City Philadelphia conducts tours of Mount Moriah, and Rhone is navigating the complex permitting process required to create an arboretum at the cemetery.

"We have to keep this treasure from becoming a pile of rubble," Rhone says.

Temple and Drexel students are assisting with landscaping, and the next regularly scheduled cleanup event is set for April 23 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

"Wear work gloves and shoes," Rhone says.

They'll clear one of the numerous Masonic Lodge plots in the cemetery, known as the Circle of St. John, or the Masons Circle.

In addition to Betsy Ross (thought to have been moved to Old City in the mid-1970s) and Israel Dunham, a onetime president of the Phillies, notable individuals buried at Mount Moriah include George Connell, who briefly served as mayor; singer/songwriter/producer John Whitehead; and Henry Jones, an African American whose family won a landmark Supreme Court decision in 1875 to allow his burial in the cemetery.

About 100,000 people are buried at Mount Moriah, and Rhone believes that there could be thousands more whose graves have been covered over.

Mount Moriah was one of the few cemeteries in Philadelphia known historically to have Muslim burials. It also contains the remains of thousands of veterans from the Revolutionary, Spanish-American, and Civil Wars, both World Wars and the Vietnam War.

"A few Confederate soldiers are buried here and even one spy," says Ricks, who conducts military-history tours of the Naval Asylum Plot and the Soldiers Plot, two national cemeteries within Mount Moriah.

The cemetery houses the United Methodist Ministers' Burial Ground, and several churches moved their cemeteries here over the decades, including First Baptist, St. Paul's Presbyterian, Old Pine Street Church, Roxborough Baptist, Wharton Street AME, and St. George's Methodist Episcopal.

"It's an opportunity for us. We hope these churches and fraternal organizations like the Masonic Lodges will get involved and honor the congregants buried here."

Rhone says her faith sustains her in her surprise retirement vocation.

"I want to be buried here next to my husband," she says, "so I have to keep Mount Moriah going."

earvedlund@phillynews.com

215-854-2808@erinarvedlund