San Mateo County Genealogical Society's Blog featuring society events, projects, meeting notes and other items of relevance to genealogists.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

San Mateo County Cemeteries: St. Denis Cemetery

WMD 2016 (2) 
Today all that remains of St. Denis (Dennis Martin) Cemetery is an obelisk standing within the grounds of the Stanford Linear Accelerator.  
In 1850 Dennis Martin settled on 1000 acres of Rancho Cañada de Raymundo that he purchased from John Coppinger.  A young Irish immigrant, he was a good Catholic who invited missionary priests to stop in his house and say mass.  Feeling need for a church he remodeled a redwood building that had been used as a school house, creating a church in the shape of a crucifix.  The church was dedicated as St. Denis, his patron Saint, by Bishop Alemany dedicated it on 8 June 1856. (1)

St. Denis Cemetery was laid out about 300 feet from the church.  

WMD 2016
A lawsuit filed by Maria de la Soledad Ortega Argüello and Jose Ramon Argüello claimed that the land was in fact part of Rancho de Las Pulgas, rather than Rancho Cañada de Raymundo In 1864 Dennis Martin, along with the estate of Coppinger and other purchasers of land in the vicinity lost their final appeal to the land. (3)  

The loss of his land included that on which the church lay.  Dennis moved to a smaller farm that remained in his possession, but never fully recovered from the loss of his thriving business. In 1882 he moved to San Francisco.  When he passed away in 1890, estranged from his daughters,  his remains were buried in St. Denis Cemetery. (4)

In the meantime St. Denis which was originally in the care of the Jesuits passed into the hands of Rev. Denis F. Dempsey, the pastor of San Mateo.  It was one of the established missions, which also included Colma and Redwood City. With the dedication of Church of the Nativity in 1872 the church was abandoned. By the time Dennis Martin was buried there, the church had been torn down, replaced by straw sheds and the cemetery lay neglected.

Eventually the land was purchased by Senator Leland Stanford who ordered that the cemetery be maintained.  However, by 1953, it was in ruins.  That was the year that the cemetery was exhumed, originally housing was to be built there. That plan was abandoned and eventually SLAC was built in 1962. 

One hundred and seventy four grave sites were identified at the time of the exhumation of St. Denis Cemetery, but remains were found for only 24 individuals.  The remains of Dennis Martin weren't among them.  All remains were re-interred in Holy Cross Cemetery in Menlo Park.   There is a stone marker in Holy Cross commemorating the burials and a stone and brass marker located at the entrance to 3000 Sand Hill road.

In 1950 Father Thomas McKeon of Church of Nativity provided a list of burials found in the records of St. Denis Church to Palo Alto Historian, Guy Miller.  Dennis Martin Cemetery, which lists 45 burials between 1856 and 1862, has been digitized and is available on FamilySearch. If there were in fact 174 burials in the cemetery, I have not found a listing of the rest.  Perhaps the cemetery includes burials that were not Catholic. 

See the Menlo Park Historical Society's Notes on the Dennis Martin Cemetery  for further details and maps of the location.


  1. Parish History - St. Denis Parish, Menlo Park & Portola Valley provides a more detailed history of the parish.
  2. Pictures by William M. Donovan for this blog. You will find up close pictures of the obelisk, plaques and some maps on St. Denis Cemetery by Jym Clendenin.  This page is linked to Notes on the Dennis Martin Cemetery mentioned above.
  3. This case was discussed in a previous blog post, NARA: Private Common Law Case Files 1855-1863 
  4. Bo Crane has written a biography, The Life and Time of Dennis Martin, San Mateo Pioneer which is available on his website or from the Menlo Park Historical Association.  Bo will be the speaker at the SMCGS Meeting on Sept. 24, 2016

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