A grave task: Helping hands clean up, beautify historic Bilbo Cemetery

Published 4:30 pm Saturday, August 13, 2022

When the sun rises over Lake Charles Sunday morning, the iconic 23-foot tall Millennium Statue of Jesus Christ that towers over the final resting places of the city’s namesake and earliest settlers will gleam a little brighter.

That’s because several dozen volunteers spent their Saturday inside Bilbo Cemetery, pulling weeds, trimming limbs, uprooting compromised trees, re-welding iron fencing, scrubbing the statue and its eight-foot base, installing solar lighting and redoing a pathway that runs the length of the historic site.

The private cemetery, located on the northeast corner on the lakefront, holds the remains of John Jacob Ryan, considered the “Father of Lake Charles,” as well as war veterans dating back to the early 19th century. 

Email newsletter signup

It’s also the final resting place of Tami Chrisope’s great-great grandmother.

“I always feared this place would get bull-dozed because it didn’t look good,” said Chrisope, senior director of marketing for the United Way of Southwest Louisiana. “These are our city’s founding fathers and doing this just makes it look so pretty. The people out here today are incredible. We really live in an amazing place where everybody does stuff to help others.”

Chrisope, who volunteered with three others from her office, spent her morning hauling tree limbs out of the cemetery. 

“It’s amazing seeing all that’s being done,” she said. “I did the Living History Tour in October and the cemetery was so overgrown. It hasn’t been touched, really, since the hurricane other than mowing. The city can’t repair it because they don’t own it, but we can do what we can today to help.”

Husband-and-wife team Kasey and Janice Crowell were among 13 volunteers from Cornerstone Community Church. He spent his morning trimming weeds while she raked up the debris after. 

“I appreciate our veterans and I appreciate our city and want to help do what I can for this community,” he said. “Right now I’m weeding and trimming up around the graves and when I’m done I’ll do whatever else they need.”

Janice Crowell said it was important to her to do what she could to help her city look better.

“I’m a mother of three who have passed on and gone to Heaven and to be able to honor the people here who founded our city and sacrificed a lot for us even to have a city is my honor,” she said. “It’s just a little something we can do for the community.”

Bubba Viator, president of the SWLA Veterans Association, rounded up the largest group of volunteers and enlisted the help of several local business owners.

“We don’t do anything simple, I guess,” he said with a laugh. “Our group wanted to help take on this project, and we want to help replace and repair and get this back to where it needs to be.”

While one of their group’s 20 volunteers spent his morning using a skid steer to re-dig the walking path, the others spread out new gravel and relaid brick pavers. They followed that up with using a donated manlift to pressure wash the statue and install solar lights at its base.

“All the equipment was donated,” Viator said. “It’s incredible. It’s pretty neat to see. On Wednesday we knew we had two pieces of equipment coming and today seeing all of this equipment here and all the help, it’s amazing.”

When William Ducoty — a Marine veteran and member of the Phillips 66 Veterans Network — arrived at the site, he went straight to join two other men who were trimming weeds around the above-ground graves. 

“I’m just here as a hand and whatever direction they point me to is what I’ll do,” he said with a smile. 

“You have all these different walks of life coming together to beautify Lake Charles again after all of the disaster that happened and this whole area is getting developed and what better opportunity to come out here and do something for the community?”

Arborist Jerry DeBarge, owner of Jerry’s Tree Service, brought his own equipment to the site and instructed volunteers on which trees were salvageable and which needed to be removed.

“We love volunteering because we can do a lot in a hurry,” he said of his team, who all volunteered their time.

“Last night I came here and looked around and I called Bubba and said, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re coming.’ We’ve got the equipment and the know-how so why not help?”

DeBarge said there were seven species of trees within the cemetery.

“We really want to take out the water oaks because it’s a species that grows wild and gets really big,” he said. “They cause 90 percent of damage in most storms. They grow real fast but they only last 60 years and they cause the most damage in cemeteries.”

An American elm, one of DeBarge’s favorite species of trees, was partially uprooted in the western edge of the cemetery. “I hate to see it go but we’re going to have to take it out today, too.”

DeBarge said he’s passionate about advising people on the right kind of trees and the right places to plant them. 

“That’s one of the reasons I’m here, too,” he said. “I want to get rid of the trees that are going to cause long-term problems so this cemetery will stay beautiful as long as possible.”