Story by Lesa Tines
DONIPHAN (SNR) – On a quiet gravel road between Hastings and Doniphan lies a country cemetery whose story is worth the telling. In 1969, St. Patrick’s Church, Highland Township, was forced to close due to low census numbers.
At that time, all records from the parish were transferred to St. Ann Parish in Doniphan. In 1972, the church contents were auctioned off and the building, which was built in 1891, was removed. The only reminder that there had been a parish in rural northern Adams County was the four-acre cemetery.
Over the years, the cemetery continued to be maintained by the Frink family, who had been members of the old parish, but since the original St. Patrick families were scattered to different parishes, its existence was largely forgotten.
That started to change when, almost 40 years later, St. Ann’s parish secretary, Deanna Swanson, was approached by Chuck Koch, a parishioner who grew up at St. Patrick. Koch inquired about purchasing a plot at the old cemetery.
“I had been a parishioner for seven years when Chuck approached me and I wasn’t even aware that we had a cemetery,” Swanson said. She began digging through the old records and survey maps which had been updated by the current caretaker, Joe Frink, as she tried to piece together enough information to honor Koch’s request.
Over the years since the transfer to St. Ann’s, some of the records had been lost or were found to be inaccurate.
“It was quite an adventure looking through files, survey maps, and other documents, watching the history unfold,” she said. “We discovered the start-up of the perpetual maintenance fund, read through letters from those who had relatives buried at St. Patrick’s, empathized with the Crosier Fathers who put the selling of plots on hold for a time due to not being certain what was available, especially in older parts of the cemetery. We even received a letter from an inmate trying to track down his family tree during this time.”
Father Joseph Faulkner, pastor of St. Ann, added, “About the same time, it seemed like we were more and more referencing the old sacramental books from St. Patrick’s. We kept having to try to understand the history of a place that Deanna and I had never seen.”
So in the summer of 2014, Swanson and Father Faulkner visited the cemetery to collect first-person information.
“It was exhilarating” Swanson said. “We spent several hours comparing the maps with the gravesites. Getting to see the family names, imagining their stories and lives was almost surreal. I felt I was being introduced to the history of a community.”
They also saw potential.
“We started thinking,” Father Faulkner said, “‘What a great little place: quiet, lots of history, but tons of room. Why couldn’t this place keep on going?’”
Over the next few months Swanson completed the work of creating an accurate, up-to-date, user-friendly map of the cemetery plots while researching how a cemetery runs. She created digital files on the computer from the paper maps and records. Faulkner started to generate interest in the cemetery by word of mouth. Parishioners were astonished to learn they had a cemetery and some went to check it out.
In early 2015, St. Ann Parish began to advertise cemetery plots for purchase again.
“From the records, it appeared that the price hadn’t been raised for decades, so we thought we would start by honoring that,” Father Faulkner said. “A plot of eight gravesites had last been sold for $500, but plots that size did not seem as practical in our high-mobility, smaller-family world.”
So the parish council decided to offer a window of time in which parishioners of St. Ann and its mission, Sacred Heart Parish in Kenesaw, could buy individual gravesites at $62.50, one-eighth of $500.
“This ‘grandfathering’ will go until the Fourth of July this year, and non-parishioners can buy a site for just $100 until then, too,” Father Faulkner said. “Then, on July 5th, all gravesites become $200 for everybody.”
Since March, a total of 42 sites have been sold, some to parishioners, others to people in the area with relatives already interred at the cemetery.
The goal, of course, wasn’t to start a new parish enterprise, Father Faulkner pointed out. Pastor and parishioners alike were just excited “to have something that not every parish gets to have, a place that reminds you concretely that the Church Triumphant and the Church Suffering are connected to you as you go through this world,” he said.
“And it connects us to history. This little parish produced three priests, the two Sheehy brothers, Robert and Paul, and long-time vicar general, Father Tom Kealy. There are the graves of old homesteaders. A woman here, Mary Keefe Ohlheiser, was awarded the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice award in 1935 by Pope Pius XI.”
The parish has also been doing a lot of work at the cemetery. The Knights of Columbus had a clean-up day April 25. They cleared the fence line of old brush and debris and trimmed some of the larger trees. Work has also been done to trim around headstones and pick up tree branches. This was, in part, preparation for what Faulkner and Swanson had envisioned from the beginning: an outdoor Mass for both parishes on the footprint of the old church.
On May 17, about 75 parishioners celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass on a windy but otherwise beautiful Sunday morning, Father Faulkner said. He preached about how between Ascension and Pentecost the Apostles were filled with hope as they had seen “a new age dawning” and “the Kingdom breaking in” through Jesus’ resurrection, and that a Catholic cemetery is all laid out in the hope of our resurrection and our desire to see the Lord “coming like the dawn.”
After the Mass, parishioners shared a potluck dinner and toured the plots at the cemetery. Swanson said most were from the area, but some came from as far away as Norfolk to attend the Mass on the ground where relatives were buried.
“Watching the families gather at the headstones of their loved ones, seeing the children romping about under the trees, helping a father and his sons measure off their family plot to find the corner markers they remember digging the ground for when some of them, now young adults, were only children, all brought a real sense of community to me,” Swanson said. “We are the Body of Christ; this community is a small part of God’s family. I am excited and honored to be a part of this. Revitalizing this cemetery is truly a worthwhile venture.”
To visit the cemetery, take Hwy 281 south from Doniphan to Trumbull Road (94th St), then go west for 4 ½ miles. The cemetery is on the north side of the road.
For more information, contact St. Ann Church at 402 845-2707.