For more than 200 years, the Quaker burial ground has sat on Yonge Street in Newmarket.
But time had taken a toll on the Religious Society of Friends Burial Ground gravestones, as well as the peaceful patch of land that surrounds them, including its 175-year-old sugar maples.
Richard Kamus made a promise to longtime friend Sherita Clark that he would do everything he could to have the grounds cleaned up and the stones restored.
“For me, I do it because I made a promise to a very good friend of mine who died in 2019,” he said. “She’s buried here and she was on the committee for 50 years and she’s the one who got me on the committee. She said to me, ‘You can’t give up membership on the committee until this cemetery has been finished.’ So I made the promise."
Kamus said that unless residents saw the cemetery four or five years ago, they would have a hard time appreciating just how much work has been done.
“Over the years, the cemetery had been neglected,” he explained. “We’ve come pretty far so far.”
Part of the restoration included Kamus cutting down more than 70 overgrown shrub trees along the fence, filling in holes on the grounds, and consistently stopping in to maintain the grass.
“I’ve been coming here since 2015 and it’s my passion,” he said. “The burial ground is really a ministry for me. I’m able to meet many people when they visit the grounds.”
Kamus said he has got to know 30 or 40 people from the community since he took over maintenance, pointing out that some people come and visit just looking for a quiet and calm place to sit.
“A lot of people visit this cemetery,” he said. “I was here a couple years ago when the great great grandson of the first person buried here came looking. Others come here, too, as part of an adventure game where they have to find the oldest tombstones. One fellow comes every so often and prays at every stone in the burial ground.”
Four years ago, in 2020, the committee began its restoration project of the grave markers under the guidance of Tom Klaasen and his team at Memorial Restorations in Sarnia.
With plans to complete the restoration work in three full-day sessions over four years, for a total of nine days, the restoration work occurred in 2020, 2021, and June 2023 and cost about $24,000.
“The last session was a few weeks ago and we finished off the remaining stones,” said Kamus. “Restoration involved raising sunken stones, and sometimes discovering stones which were not visible, standing upright tilting stones, building bases, repairing broken stones, and thorough cleaning of every stone within the burial ground.”
While the restorations are complete, Kamus and Klaasen plan to get together again in November to build bases for flat stones that are on the ground to raise them up.
“Stones last longer if they stand up and they don’t get as broken,” said Kamus. “And now that we’ve got bases for the stones, it looks much much better in here.”
Besides continuing with the restoration of stones, the committee is hoping to plant two or three more sugar maples and other trees and plants around the cemetery.
“A great deal of the work is volunteer work, though we do pay professionals for specific work” Kamus said. “With so much of this restoration now complete, we may now proceed with the task of re-creating our burial ground database.”
Quakers are members and attendees of the Religious Society of Friends, founded in 1650 in England. Founded in 1807, the Yonge Street burial ground is the oldest in the area and next door to it is the Yonge Street monthly meeting hall, built in 1812, a place where Quakers gather for worship.
“This used to be a farm, the Doans donated the space to the Quakers and there’s a monument in the burial ground to them,” said Kamus. “It’s an active burial ground, Quakers and longtime attenders can be buried here. Quakers buried here are from Hamilton, Toronto, Newmarket, and surrounding townships.”
Funded by private donations through the Canadian Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, the day-to-day tasks and services are the responsibility of the Yonge Street Friends Burial Ground committee. Currently, there are four members on the committee, including Kamus, who has been on the committee for six years.
“We couldn’t afford to pay someone to do the maintenance, so I’ve been doing it until we get everything in order,” he said. “We’ve got some younger guys who have helped out and we’re hoping to have more mowers donated.”
The administrator of the burial ground is Evelyn Schmitz-Hertzberg, a birthright Quaker and friend to Kamus. They hope with the restoration work, more people will come to the area.
“We welcome visitors to our burial ground,” added Kamus.
To donate to Yonge Street Friends Burial Ground, visit quaker.ca/contact/donate/ and specify the donation is for Yonge Street Friends Burial Ground.