3 Oklahoma sisters make trek to Tucson in search of siblings’ gravesites

When an Oklahoma woman began researching her family tree, she had no idea her quest for information would lead her and her two sisters to Tucson, armed with grave markers.

Diana Ramirez and her sisters, who lived in Tucson for a time as children, arrived from Oklahoma on July 7, hoping to find the graves of their three sisters who died here decades ago.

There was baby Odelia, who died in 1958, and 5-year-old Deborah who was swept away in the Santa Cruz in 1960 when water in the river began to rise — both of whom Ramirez remembered. But there was also Baby Girl Schlottman, who unbeknownst to Ramirez was stillborn in 1959.

Times were hard for the young family, headed by Henry and Lottie Schlottman. Deborah was laid to rest at Holy Hope Cemetery, 3555 N. Oracle Road, in an area reserved for families who couldn’t pay for burial, also known as Section I, as were the sisters who died before her as infants.

The year after Deborah drowned, the Schlottman home caught fire on Ash Wednesday while the family was at church. A few years later, they moved to Oklahoma, where Lottie Schlottman had family.

Through her research, Ramirez found that gravestones often gave clues to family history, along with birth and death dates. So she set out to find the graves of her sisters and place markers to memorialize them.

After contacting the cemetery and government agencies, Ramirez and two older sisters — Barbara Holder and Mary Robinson — drove to Tucson with only copies of index cards telling the locations of her sisters by row and grave number.

But the adult sisters were unpleasantly surprised at the condition of Section I.

Metal grave markers that once may have offered information were now blank and many had fallen. Weeds grew all about the area. The ground around the few permanent markers had eroded and several graves had sunk, but at least that showed the position of a grave. There was no marking of rows and grave numbers to identify where the sisters were buried.

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In an area of the cemetery reserved for families who couldn’t pay for burial, metal markers that once may have offered information are now blank. The Schlottman sisters were also hampered by a lack of row markers and grave numbers.

Careful searching, counting and matching of information about graves that had been marked by the families of other children buried there gave the sisters an idea where they might be, but there was no way to be certain. Using the names of some marked graves and getting their grid locations might have made that easier, but in several cases the numbers didn’t match the locations of the markers with names. They weren’t sequential.

Had some of the children been moved? Had families placed markers on the wrong graves?

One government clerk the ladies talked to mentioned a flood long ago that washed some caskets away. Perhaps those recovered were reburied in the wrong places. A search of Arizona Daily Star archives did not uncover news of caskets washed away from Holy Hope Cemetery.

Before they left town on July 11, the sisters made another trip to the cemetery. As they walked to the spot in Section I of Holy Hope Cemetery where they estimate one of their sisters might be buried, Robinson prayed and sang a hymn.

The sisters took a last moment to look around before leaving Tucson with the small markers they brought with them, hoping someone might be able to help them in the future.

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Mary Robinson, Barbara Holder and Diana Ramirez had hoped to personally place marble tombstones marking the spots where their sisters were laid to rest decades ago.

The future came sooner than expected when the women connected with Thomas Hanlon, executive director of the Diocese of Tucson Catholic Cemeteries, and Manuel Rodriguez, superintendent of field operations at the cemetery.

According to Hanlon, at the time the sisters were buried, detailed records and maps weren’t kept of burial sites or if they were kept, they have not survived. When families could not afford markers, grave locations were often lost to time.

Vowing to work with the sisters to find a satisfactory solution, Hanlon asked Ramirez to ship the markers to Holy Hope Cemetery, where Rodriguez would search records and try to locate the burial sites.

Hanlon and the sisters agreed the markers would be placed as close as possible to the right locations if the exact spots could not be found.

Rodriguez located the graves based on the dates the girls were buried, and while he is not 100 percent positive about the exact locations, he is quite confident that he has found the right sites.

On July 27, Rodriguez and groundskeepers Juan de la Rosa and Henry Gallego placed the stones on the graves of the three little Schlottman sisters.

While their surviving sisters could not be present, the children who passed away long ago are now memorialized at Holy Hope Cemetery.

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