Thoughts of the dead do not normally cross one’s mind when walking the steps up to Lone Mountain. In actuality, people don’t usually concentrate on much more than merely lifting one foot after the other. While we walk up and down those horrid steps without much consequence, it was not long ago that San Franciscans walked the same ground with relentless trepidation. Their fears did not stem from the midterm awaiting them at the top, but from the uneasiness of walking through the city’s largest section of infant and child burial grounds.
Catholic Masons bought the laurel tree covered hill in 1850. Formal ceremonies for the dedication of the ironically named Laurel Hill Cemetery (they cut down most of the laurel trees to create that desperately needed desolate atmosphere) occurred on May 30, 1854. The first internment came on June 2nd, followed by 12 more within the month. San Franciscans quickly figured out the positive aspects of laying their dead to rest in Laurel Hill, as opposed to a quickly fading Yerba Buena Cemetery across town, because it provided the departed with a serene yet simple landscape for eternal rest. The central location of the cemetery also appealed to many people who wanted to visit their loved ones on a regular basis.
It wasn’t long before the popularity of Laurel Hill inspired the powers that be in San Francisco to expand the cemetery down the hill. The same Catholics who bought the original land in 1850 purchased the land between Turk and Fulton a decade later and started development. Three main cemeteries, OddFellows, Mount Olivet and Masonic, sprouted up on the site within the next five years, and together with Laurel Hill, eventually held upwards of 150,000 deceased.
Fast forward through those thousands of deaths and burials to the early 1930s, to when San Franciscans grew tired of living next to dead people. Those disgruntled members of the community voted to move the graves, including the prevalent mausoleum that belonged to the city’s first beer baron, from San Francisco to another locale. Soon enough, the hundreds of thousands of dead were moved south to Colma, which prompted a new reputation as the “city of the dead.”
It did not take long for the vacancy to be filled. San Francisco College for Women, equipped with a plethora of nuns and elegant tapestries, moved in and occupied the spot from 1932 into the sixties, when the school changed its name to Lone Mountain College. The conventionally minded USF then bought the liberal campus in 1978 in what Father Tom Lucas describes as “USF’s own Louisiana purchase,” as it presented the Jesuits with “a safety valve for the future” regarding expansion.
The history of the land did not hinder any success, as the only resurgence of the grave site occurred with the unearthing of physical treasures. For instance, a 1996 renovation of Gleeson Library unearthed some bones that had been missed in the big 1930 move. Individuals, mostly the gardeners who work on the University’s land, have found bits and pieces of graves throughout the years.
Perhaps the biggest hidden treasure in Lone Mountain resides not underground but vaulted two stories into the air. The Gothic Spanish elegance of Lone Mountain’s buildings cannot be denied, and the Del Santo Reading Room, which sits in the East wing of the main building’s second floor, is no exception. Famous on campus for it’s rich studying atmosphere, it looks like a study room right out of Hogwarts itself. With all the ornately decorated wall beams, the sculpted pillars featuring faces of saints and angels, the Gothic chandeliers it’s hard not to expect a Hogwarts ghost flowing right through the stacks of aged Chinese dictionaries, or a trio of friends (Harry, Ron and Hermione) sitting in three of the ancient chairs being watched and scolded by a looming Professor Snape.
While we all know Nearly Headless Nick won’t be floating around this study spot anytime soon, we do run the chance of bumping into another ghostly presence: Lone Mountain’s own Sister Agnes. According to legend (and “sealed Public Safety records” according to Fr. Al Grosskopf), Agnes wanders both Lone Mountain’s back courtyard and the Bell Tower she threw herself off back in the day due to an unexpected pregnancy. Despite the noticeable connection to the subpar ‘80s movie Agnes of God (that coincidentally possesses the same plot line as Lone Mountain’s Agnes), the myth of Agnes’ wanderings still haunts the school, as if Dons take pride in harboring a restless soul. Even Father Lucas will not confirm or deny the existence of her spirit, only saying that he has never personally seen her with his own two eyes.
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