The Catholic Spirit is running an occasional series focused on the works of mercy. This week, we highlight praying for the dead, a spiritual work of mercy.
It was an odd sight: 35 teenagers laughing, running and playing — in a cemetery.
How could this be? Those visiting the gravesites of their loved ones may have scratched their heads as they watched eighth-graders from St. Agnes School in St. Paul frolic on the grounds of Calvary Cemetery in St. Paul Oct. 11 — all with the approval of their teacher and the pastor of St. Agnes parish, who were there with them.
This was no joke, but was, in fact, serious business. They engaged in earnest work to clean the graves of clergy and religious buried there, plus say prayers and make rubbings of a handful of headstones that would be taken back to school and put up in the classroom as a reminder to the students of their ancestors in faith.
The event was meant to help prepare the children for the Feast of All Souls on Nov. 2. And, it was clear these kids had some fun along the way.
Watching the raking, rubbing and praying with delight was an employee of the cemetery, Linda Radtke, who helped arrange the outing with St. Agnes religion teacher Joan Decker.
“We are ecstatic about having the kids out here,” Radtke said. “It shows them that a cemetery doesn’t have to be a scary, sad place. A cemetery should be a place to remember and know our loved ones, and we can do that with laughter and smiles, and not just tears.”
Indeed, no tears were shed on this day, but there was plenty of awe and wonder, especially when the students studied individual gravestones and discussed what the lives of the deceased clergy and religious might have been like.
Decker joined in one of those conversations, right after she looked down at her feet and noticed something that surprised her.
“I just happened to be standing on a gravestone that was filled with debris, and I?started to brush it away and realized that it was a young sister,” she said. “She died in 1872 at 28 years of age. So, I said to the girls who were cleaning graves
next to me, ‘How do you think she died?’”
Curious about the answer to that question, she contacted the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet here in St. Paul and inquired about the person whose name they found on the headstone — Sister John Joseph O’Keefe.
Decker learned that Sister John Joseph was born in Pennsylvania to parents who came to the U.S. from Ireland. She joined the CSJs in 1868 and was sent to Minnesota in response to a request from Archbishop John Ireland for people to staff St. Joseph’s Hospital. After caring for many patients as a nurse, she got sick herself and died of tuberculosis on Jan. 29, 1872.
Students did an ink rubbing of her headstone and now have it displayed in the classroom. The class prays for her daily, which helps keep her memory alive. This is exactly what Decker was hoping would come out of the experience.
The idea for this field trip came last summer when she was visiting Resurrection Cemetery in Mendota Heights with her husband Francis. They ended up staying an hour longer to clean gravesites; then she decided to schedule a field trip for her students to do the same thing this fall. That gave them the valuable opportunity to encounter people like Sister John Joseph, and learn how they lived and served the church.
“I have talked about Sister John Joseph O’Keefe to both the seventh- and eighth-grade classes,” ?Decker said. “They have visited her remains, and now with the opportunity to learn about her history, she becomes real to them.”
This was an unexpected result of the field trip for the students, at least some of whom merely viewed the afternoon as a time to play in a wide open space.
“I just wanted to run around with my friends,” said eighth-grader Michael Eilen. “But, I knew what Jesus would do, and I did it. . . . I found compassion for the people who weren’t able to help themselves, and I thought treating them with respect is what they deserved.”
Decker said the students already have asked her to schedule another visit to Calvary Cemetery this school year. And, future St. Agnes eighth-graders also will get their chance.
“We feel that this needs to be a yearly event for us,” she said. “These are our ancestors in faith and we absolutely will be doing this on an annual basis.”