Forgotten cemetery in San Antonio ringed by junkyards, grazing land

Forgotten cemetery in San Antonio ringed by junkyards, grazing land

What began with an anonymous letter containing a map dropped off at the KSAT 12 front desk in 2021 finally led to the discovery of a small forgotten cemetery behind the junkyards lining New Laredo Highway.

None of the employees at the junkyards ever heard of a cemetery, but some did know of Randy Vail, the owner of a property just off the 8600 block of New Laredo Highway.

After first taking KSAT reporter Jessie Degollado to the site, Vail welcomed the lovers of history who Degollado had invited to see the cemetery for themselves.

“Let’s find out who they are and why they’re here,” Vail said. “Because I don’t know.”

Understandable since most of the headstones are toppled or broken.

“To see something like this, it just opens my mind up for more,” said Belinda Gavallos, chair of the Bexar County Historical District.

Gavallos said what’s intriguing is why the cemetery is there, ringed by junkyards and grazing land, and why it’s known as both Leoncito Cemetery, perhaps of its proximity to Leon Creek, listed as Saint Teresa Cemetery by the Bexar County Appraisal District.

Retired Teresian Sisters said there was a Saint Teresa Academy and convent at one time, the Sisters who passed were buried at San Fernando Cemetery.

A spokesman for the Archdiocese of San Antonio said they could find no record of a Saint Teresa Cemetery in its archives.

Vail said he doesn’t know if he owns the cemetery believed to be about half an acre in size, but it’s in the middle of his property.

He said the previous owner who sold it to him 30 years ago didn’t know anything about the cemetery’s origins.

“We don’t know why. We don’t know who actually owns the cemetery,” Gavallos said.

She was joined by Dr. David Carlson, Bexar County archivist and interim chair of the Historic Commission’s Cemetery Committee.

After reviewing deed records and studying the pieces of barely legible headstones, Carlson said the earliest mention of a cemetery found so far in deed records is 1925.

But Carlson said it appears the burial ground had been in use since 1897 and the most recent burial is 1940.

Only two headstones were placed there in the past few years. One of them was that of two young brothers, 12-year-old Luis Bitoni, who died in 1918, and his baby brother Roberto, only eight months old when he died in 1923.

They would have been Mary Bitoni’s uncles.

“I just can’t believe it,” Bitoni said as she stood before their gravesite. “I never thought this is going to happen. I never thought we were going to see this.”

Nearby was an infant barely eight days old, Maria Virginia Lugo Ugartechea, who was buried in 1935.

Her brother, Alfonso Lugo, placed his baby sister’s headstone where he thought she might be.

He said it was his father who had to bury his baby girl as many impoverished families had to do back then.

“As far as we know, he was the only one who knew the exact location,” Lugo said.

He said it bothered his mother all her life because she wanted to visit her gravesite.

“Mother really mourned her during the last years of her life,” Lugo said. “All she knew was it was at El Leonsito and we had no idea where that was.”

After doing the research, Lugo located the cemetery and put Virginia’s headstone where it is now.

“My main concern was to honor my sister and appease my poor mother’s soul,” Lugo said.

Although Lugo believes, like Carlson, that El Leonsito was a potter’s field or pauper’s cemetery, he said he’s willing to pay a reasonable price for a fence that would keep Vail’s cattle from trampling on the graves.

Gavallos said it’s for families like the Bitoni’s and the Lugo’s that the cemetery’s dignity must be restored.

“It’s about family members reconnecting with their ancestors,” she said.

Following is a list of previous owners of the cemetery: (1897-1924 )

  • Withers Ranch
  • 1897 G.W. Brackenridge
  • 1898 Wm. Cassin
  • 1908 G.A. Gage
  • 1910 E.C. Edwards
  • 1913 Perryman S. Moore
  • 1913 W.D. Syers
  • 1924 Claud McCauley

For a list of known cemeteries in Bexar County, click here.

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