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Md. church employs goats to uncover hidden graves (Photos)

Friday - 8/30/2013, 4:58pm  ET

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These goats look hungry. On Saturday, some will begin their feast at St. Ignatius Catholic Church. (WTOP/Michelle Basch)
  • Gallery: (8 images)

PORT TOBACCO, Md. - A local church founded more than 370 years ago is bringing in a team of experts to uncover hidden graves.

It's a team of goats.

St. Ignatius Catholic Church and its surrounding buildings have stood in the Port Tobacco area of Charles County for a very long time.

The church was founded in 1641.

"There's two sets of walls, two buildings that we think were built somewhere between 1660 and 1690, but we're not sure," said the church's pastor, Fr. Tom Clifford, S.J.

The church that stands today was built in 1798, and Clifford thinks the oldest graves near it date as far back as the 1850s.

Besides being the oldest continuously active parish in the United States, the church is also recognized for its stunning setting.

"It's certainly noted by many as the most spectacular view in Charles County, because you can look down across the cemetery to the Port Tobacco River and out to the mouth of the Port Tobacco and into the Potomac," Clifford said.

Unfortunately, part of the cemetery has been neglected for years.

On a walking tour, Clifford showed WTOP how weeds and vines have completely taken over one section. Several headstones peeked out from tangled brush.

"If you lose a foot a year, it doesn't take long before you lose 30 or 40 feet. So we're not even sure how far out we're going to find stones. Certainly 25 feet. That's easy," Clifford said.

The church has another reason to clear the mass of vegetation.

It's getting ready to open a new section of its cemetery with 200 available gravesites, and the area that's overgrown blocks the view of the church from this new section, which is situated at the bottom of a hill.

Goats have been hired do the dirty job of clearing the vegetation and rediscovering graves that can no longer be seen. They're an ideal choice because they won't harm the graves like heavy equipment would, and they love to eat many of the annoying plants that make humans itch.

"They prefer the poison sumac, poison ivy, poison oak and the multiflora rose, which that's what this job is just inundated with," said Mary Bowen, owner of Prosperty Acres Farm in the Sunderland area of Calvert County, which is renting the goats to the church.

Bowen said she'll bring in between 35 and 40 goats starting Saturday to chew their way through two acres.

"They're going to reach up as high as they can go, some of the goats can stand up on their hind feet 6 to 6 1/2 feet."

She expects the job to take two weeks at most.

Bowen said goats are basically workaholics.

"When they are laying down people think, 'oh, they are taking a break.' No, they're actually ruminating what they have eaten and then they can get back up and take down more vegetation, so they're constantly working," she said.

"They don't take smoke breaks, they don't need to go and play Facebook and Candy Crush on their telephone, they're very, very busy and they actually love their job," Bowen added.

When they are not off doing other jobs, the goats live year-round at Mellomar Golf Park in Owings, Md., maintaining the greens there.

St. Ignatius Church has other repair and upkeep costs and welcomes donations via its website.

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