When the Dominican Friars moved to Benicia in 1853 and established Saint Dominic’s Priory of Benicia, one of the early concerns of Father Vilarrasa was to provide for the burial needs both of the parish community and the Dominican Community. He purchased a large tract of land within the Benicia City Cemetery that was informally known as Saint Dominic’s Cemetery. For many years it served the burial needs of the parish and remains the largest single section of the Benicia City Cemetery. (If you drive into the City Cemetery you drive on the right side of the cemetery. At the northern end of the cemetery you must make a hair-pin turn and head in a southerly direction. All of the burial land to your right is Saint Dominic’s Cemetery. It is not used for new burials and is maintained by the City of Benicia Department of Parks and Recreation.)
In 1894 Saint Dominic’s Cemetery was formally established and the eleven friars buried in the priory cemetery were transferred to the new cemetery located just one mile away. In 1897 twenty-three Dominican Sisters were transferred from the Sisters’ cemetery that had been located behind their convent on Military Road. (Benicia’s Safeway Store is located on the site of Saint Catherine’s Convent.) Very quickly this became the preferred burial site for not only the Friars and Sisters, but also for Dominican Laity, parishioners, family members of friars and sisters, benefactors, and other people who have been associated with the life and ministry of the Friars in California.
Until the 1970s the cemetery was under the direction of the pastors of Saint Dominic’s Parish. Beginning with Father Anthony Cordiero and then Father Thomas Hayes, the cemetery has been maintained by the Province directly. In large part the beauty of the cemetery today reflects the dedication, hard work, and love of these two friars. Without their efforts the cemetery would not be as beautiful as it is today. In addition to the work of Father Cordeiro and Thomas Hayes, I must pay tribute the contribution that Father Finbarr Hayes has made to the cemetery. In the 1980s, he spoke at the first Mass that was celebrated in the cemetery during a Province Assembly. Using a wireless mike, he stood behind the gravestones of ten friars and introduced the Province to some of their brothers that had gone before them. Often humorous, Father Hayes’ stories made our deceased brothers come alive again and allowed them to continue being a part of the life of the Western Dominican Province.