Joan Gecik has been preparing all of her life to lead Catholic Cemeteries

| Christina Capecchi | October 21, 2019 | 0 Comments

Joan Gecik is the first woman to serve as executive director of The Catholic Cemeteries. She is pictured Oct. 15 at Resurrection Cemetery in Mendota Heights, where her office is located. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

To get the full story, you must go back to the Sunday picnics.

Without knowing it, Joan Gecik has been preparing for her new job as executive director of The Catholic Cemeteries her entire life ­— personally and professionally. But the first notable influence came in early childhood. After Sunday Mass, her parents would take their 10 kids out for a picnic at the cemetery — a free, safe and beautiful place.

Joan fed the ducks, watched the birds and touched gravestones, wondering about the history at her fingertips.

Today, an attraction to cemeteries is less common –— as is the acceptance of death that was modeled to Gecik, a member of St. Richard in Richfield and a skilled parish administrator.

“Death was a part of life,” she said. “It was not feared, it was embraced.”

The first woman to serve in this position, the former nun and teacher brings a collaborative spirit and a fervent love of learning. Since she began studying last fall at the Mendota Heights office under longtime Director John Cherek, who retired at the end of last year, she has read 19 books on cemeteries and burials.

“I just sop it in,” she said.

As director of Catholic Cemeteries, which spans five cemeteries in the archdiocese, Gecik manages a staff of 27 — many moving parts and roles beyond the field workers who dig gravesites. Her acute organizational and leadership skills as a firstborn are put to good use overseeing complicated issues of cemetery law, contracts, meetings, communications, mapping and genealogy.

“There are so many meetings!” she said. “Every time I turn around I am signing something.”

And yet, Gecik brought a wealth of relevant experience to the learning curve. She has done full-time parish ministry for more than four decades, including seven years as director of worship and parish life at the Cathedral of St. Paul and, most recently, nearly five years as pastoral administrator at St. Thomas the Apostle in Minneapolis. The through-line of her wide-ranging parish ministry: working with people who are grieving.

“I just know how, intrinsically, to connect with people who are in pain because of loss,” she said. “It’s a sacred time to walk with people when their heart is most tender.”

Gecik is speaking from personal experience —including the death of her sister Andi at age 50, a victim of breast cancer — and professional experience, having done burials as part of her pastoral care. That’s when the Catholic concept she’d heard bandied around since childhood finally clicked: the communion of saints.

“I think it’s a very thin veil that separates us from our next life,” she said. “I feel we never lose the connection (to deceased loved ones.) I have a heart string to the people I’ve accompanied through death. There’s part of me that can’t wait to get to heaven. I think it’s going to be such a big reunion!”

She extends a gentle invitation to the grieving who cross her path: “I just tell people that we care for the communion of saints, and it isn’t a bad idea to join in some conversation with this group who has gone before us.”

Often a widow or widower will light up at this suggestion, validated by a habit they had once considered crazy. “That’s exactly what I do!” they’ll tell Gecik.

She gets it. “I talk to my sister a lot,” she said.

These conversations represent the kind of broader educational and spiritual support around death she would like Catholic Cemeteries to extend in the future. Next May, for instance, she’s hosting a speaker to address the unrecognized loss of miscarriage and stillbirth. Gecik plans to sponsor more seminars and lead tours to bring in more people.

“I would like to see the cemeteries as places that people want to visit — not only because they have a loved one in our care, but because they are beautiful places that inspire us to reflect on life. They are places to remember and to share stories. They are places to pray.”

In honor of 2020 being dubbed International Year of the Woman, she’s enlisting a researcher to gather the stories of the women buried at the historic St. Mary’s Cemetery in Minneapolis. Gecik is also exploring ways for her staff to share their findings and resources more widely, reaching beyond their current use of Facebook and a bi-annual newsletter to possibly include podcasts and YouTube videos.

Gecik’s collaborative leadership style is drawing out the many talents of her staff. She set up teams to make the workplace feel less like siloes. She hosts regular brainstorming sessions for the staff to dream big and discern their future. And she prays for them one by one, especially after hard days.

The opportunity to lead Catholic Cemeteries feels like the culmination of her career, she said. “I’m always thanking God that I was led here.”

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