St. Mary/Putnam Cemetery named Level II Arboretum

By Joe Pisani

GREENWICH—St. Mary/Putnam Cemetery in Greenwich is recognized as one of the most beautiful natural settings in town, with 80 acres on rolling hills with woods and wetlands, and a peaceful bucolic landscape that attracts runners, arborists, birdwatchers, historical tours and, of course, those who come to visit their loved ones who have died.

The cemetery, which has served the surrounding communities, including Westchester County, N.Y., for more than a century was recently accredited as a Level II Arboretum by the ArbNet Arboretum Program and the Morton Arboretum for achieving the professional standards essential for arboreta and botanic gardens, according to James Tomlinson, Director of Administration for Catholic Cemeteries of the Diocese of Bridgeport.

Tomlinson said the initiative, which was conceived in 2020, began in earnest in January 2022, when Dean Gestal, executive director of Catholic Cemeteries, met with representatives of the accreditation organization and set about cataloguing trees on the 80 acres in an effort to achieve the standards needed to be classified as a Level II arboretum.

“To get to Level II, you had to have 100 species, and we had close to that when we started the project,” Tomlinson said. Currently, St. Mary/Putnam, which has close to 145 notable trees on its property and more than 1000 trees in total, will be recognized in the Morton Register of Arboreta, a database of the world’s arboreta and gardens dedicated to woody plants.

During the initiative, the trees were catalogued, mapped and tagged under the guidance of Jason Brander, Cemetery Superintendent, who has a deep knowledge of trees. Each year, Brander plants another tree at the cemetery on Arbor Day, which is observed on the last Friday in April.

“We needed 11 new species to reach Level II arboretum status,” Brander said. “We’ve gotten many more than that over the past three years. Also, we are trying to plant a lot of native plants and shrubs, such as native northern high-bush blueberry, red and yellow dogwood and others. We also brought in cinnamon fern. I’d like to get more native ferns and grasses, and this year do a small butterfly garden, mostly of native milkweed, blazing star and others.”

Tomlinson said that as part of the program, the cemeteries staff has developed a maintenance schedule for the trees, which includes a quarterly trimming and pruning.

“This was a very important project for us,” he said. “We wanted to do something positive for the community. We just don’t want to be known as a cemetery. These 80 acres are a tranquil place, and we encourage people to visit — not only those whose loved ones have passed away, but also joggers, walkers, nature lovers, birdwatchers and anyone who can appreciate the beautiful and peaceful environment.”

St. Mary/Putnam Cemetery is open to the public from 8 am to 5 pm with full access, he said.

“I’ve seen so many people walking together, running, having conversations and enjoying the tranquility,” he said. “It is a place where you know people have faced loss, but it is also a place for everyone to enjoy the natural beauty, and one of the most gorgeous sites in Greenwich.”

The accreditation program is coordinated by the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill. in cooperation with the American Public Gardens Association and Botanic Gardens Conservation International. The organization says it is “the only global initiative to officially recognize arboreta based on a set of professional standards. The program offers four levels of accreditation, recognizing arboreta of various degrees of development, capacity and professionalism. Standards include planning, governance, public access, programming and tree science, planting and conservation.”

At St. Mary/Putnam Cemetery, located at 399 North St., more than 50,000 Catholics and non-Catholics are buried on the grounds, and there are approximately 20,000 headstones.

The cemetery was officially recognized on May 8, 1919 by an act of the state legislature, according to research provided by the curator of Library and Archives of the Greenwich Historical Society.

In 1945, by the end of World War II, the bodies of many servicemen and women had come home to Greenwich for burial, and a Crucifixion Monument was erected at St. Mary’s, honoring the war dead and deceased members of the parish.

During the mid-1980s, the Diocese of Bridgeport purchased the non-sectarian Putnam Cemetery at 35 Parsonage Road, which is the resting place of notable residents such as Victor Borge, author Anya Seton, TV host Bud Collyer, and U.S Senator Prescott Bush and his wife Dorothy Bush, who were parents of President George H.W. Bush and grandparents of President George W. Bush.

Among those buried at St. Mary Cemetery are George and Ann Brannack Skakel, parents of Ethel Kennedy, U.S. Congressman William L. Tierney and TV personality Jack Lescoulie.

“It is a historical place and a very special place,” says Joseph McCurdy, Director of Operations. “I wish I could put into words how beautiful and serene it is there. On an autumn day, the sky is clear blue and the leaves have brilliant colors. I’m always in awe of the craftsmanship of the headstones and monuments.”