Catholic Cemeteries, then and now: Organization marks 175 years ministering to archdiocese’s living, deceased

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, June 17, 2012

Catholic Cemeteries, then and now

Faith is alive in the Catholic cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Then: The faithful gather on Memorial Day 1972 for a Field Mass celebrating the 100th anniversary of St. Adalbert Cemetery in Niles. Auxiliary Bishop Alfred Abramowicz was the main celebrant. (Catholic New World file photo)
Then: Officials gather for a book signing of "Modern Cemetery Administration" produced by Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Chicago. The group was in Chicago for a meeting of the National Catholic Cemeteries Conference. Holding the book was Msgr. George Casey, the archdiocese's vicar general. Next to him was Msgr. Edward Kinney, NCCC president. Top left was Msgr. Francis McElligoot, director of archdiocesan cemeteries. (Catholic New World file photo)
Now: Msgr. Patrick Pollard, director of the Archdiocese of Chicago's Catholic Cemeteries, prays with cemeterians from around the country on a tour of the Bishop's Chapel at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Hillside on Sept. 29, 2009. The group was in town for a meeting of the national Catholic Cemetery Conference. Pollard is a past president of the group. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)
Now: Msgr. Patrick Pollard, director of the Archdiocese of Chicago's Catholic Cemeteries, prays with cemeterians from around the country on a tour of the Bishop's Chapel at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Hillside on Sept. 29, 2009. The group was in town for a meeting of the national Catholic Cemetery Conference. Pollard is a past president of the group. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)
Now: Cardinal George celebrates Mass at Maryhill Cemetery, 8600 N. Milwaukee Ave., on May 31, 2011. The cardinal was joined by the auxiliary bishops of the Archdiocese of Chicago at cemeteries throughout the archdiocese for the annual Memorial Day field Masses. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

Faith is alive in the Catholic cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

It is alive in the workers who bury the deceased, it is alive in the staff members who minister to their families, and it is alive in the family members who lovingly placed their dead in consecrated ground in the hope of resurrection.

None of that has changed in the 175 years since the first Catholic cemetery in what is now the Archdiocese of Chicago — at St. James Sag Bridge in Lemont — accepted its first bodies in 1837.

What has changed is the way the cemeteries operate, and the way families and society itself copes with death. Some of those changes, especially the movement toward cremation without interment of the remains, present challenges to Catholic teaching and to the culture itself.

“The cemeteries are a reflection of what our church is,” said Msgr. Patrick Pollard, director of Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Chicago. “Cemeteries almost have a timelessness to them, but each one has a history. They were all started by people who wanted to establish a final resting place that described their faith. Then other people of faith came in and kept adding their view of faith.”

First Catholic ministry

The 44 cemeteries now operated by Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Chicago have provided a final resting place for nearly 2.4 million people — roughly the same as the living Catholic population of the archdiocese. They remain connected to us in the communion of saints.

The ministry of burying the dead may have been the first permanent Catholic ministry to exist in the Chicago area, said Roman Szabelski, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

In the churchyard cemetery at St. James-Sag Bridge, visitors can still read the gravestones of Irish workers who came to the area to work on the I&M Canal and were killed on the job. They were buried near the canal, and eventually, the Catholic community built a church near the graveyard, instead of the other way around.

Other parishes that were then in rural areas established their own cemeteries as well, Szabelski said, while the Catholic burial ground in the city itself kept getting moved further and further out, first from land adjacent to what is now the cardinal’s residence, at North Avenue and State Parkway, to what is now Lincoln Park, to the still-existing Calvary Cemetery on the southern edge of Evanston.

Calvary, established in 1859, was really the first of the diocesan cemeteries, Szabelski said.

While most of the people buried at Calvary were Irish, German Catholics, Polish Catholics and other ethnic groups eventually established their own cemeteries. The German Angel Guardian Orphan Society established four cemeteries, starting with St. Boniface at 4901 N. Clark St., in 1863. The Polish Catholic community built St. Adalbert, 6800 N. Milwaukee, Niles, in 1872, followed by three more, and Lithuanian Catholics established St. Casimir Cemetery, 4401 W. 111th St., in 1903.

Immigrant influence

In many ways, the history of the archdiocese can be traced through the development of cemeteries, as wave after wave of immigrants arrived and created their own burial places, according to the Institutional History of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

The development of cemeteries also shows the explosive growth in the population of Chicago — and its Catholic population — following the Civil War and the Great Chicago Fire. In 1872, there were only three diocesan cemeteries serving Catholic residents of Chicago; seven more were established between 1885 and 1905.

At the time, supervision of the cemeteries was divided between a Polish cemetery board, made up of the pastors of Polish parishes; the rector of Angel Guardian Orphanage, who took care of the German cemeteries; and a diocesan cemetery administrator, who oversaw the rest of the diocesan cemeteries. Parish cemeteries operated more or less independently.

Most of the time, the cemeteries remained focused on the basic task at hand: burying the many people who died at a time when only human and animal labor was available. During the influenza epidemic of 1918, as many as 75 people a day were being buried at Mount Carmel Cemetery, which had been established in 1901 at 1400 S. Wolf Road, Hillside.

Death, at the time, was a family affair, Szabelski said. Most people died at home, and their families washed them and prepared them for burial. Vigils were held in the homes of the deceased, followed by a Mass and burial.

Processions to the cemeteries — which in urban settings were generally on the outskirts of the city — could be by horse and buggy or, in many cases, by special train. Calvary, Mount Carmel Cemetery in Hillside and Resurrection Cemetery in Justice all had their own spur lines.

“People would take trains out and spend the whole day,” said Theodore Ratajczyk, director of cemetery services.

At the time, it wasn’t unusual for families to buy lots of 20 or so graves to have their own family plot.

Maintenance generally was left up to the families — which became more of an issue after the First World War, as families became more mobile. The archdiocese began opening cemeteries in more distant suburbs, including All Saints in Des Plaines and Holy Sepulchre in Alsip, both consecrated in 1923, and Ascension in Libertyville, consecrated in 1928. Those were the first three cemeteries where the purchase price of a gravesite included a provision for perpetual care.

After World War II, the size and scope of Catholic cemeteries had grown so much that the director of archdiocesan cemeteries, Father William Casey, realized that the archdiocese needed professional cemetery management and appointed an executive director. But the German, Polish and parish cemeteries remained somewhat independent.

It wasn’t until 1965 that the German and Polish cemeteries came under the umbrella of Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Chicago, Szabelski said. The impetus was most likely the need to work together on labor agreements; cemetery workers for all three groups are represented by the Service Employees International Union. Bringing them together was a big step forward in administrative efficiency.

Since then, all but two of the parish cemeteries have also come under the umbrella of Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Change in business

Looking at changes in cemetery operations means looking at the way the entire funeral business has changed, Szabelski said.

Now, most deaths do not take place at home, and the preparation of the body for burial and the vigil is most often done at a funeral home — so called because it took on functions that used to be performed at home. Wakes have shrunk from two days to one to, in many cases, the morning before the funeral, and, in some families, the children of the deceased are not opting for Catholic funerals at all.

Where Catholic cemeteries once did about 22,000 burials a year, it now does about 16,000, Szabelski said.

Szabelski said some of the changes can make it harder for families. Cutting the length of the vigil and squeezing the rites into as short a time as possible makes it harder for families to accept the reality of the death, he said.

“People don’t have a chance to take a deep breath and say, ‘Mom’s really dead,’” he said.

At the same time, following the Second Vatican Council, funeral vestments went from black to white and the emphasis of funeral liturgies went from mourning for the dead to the hope of resurrection. It was another step from that to the more secular “celebration of life” that some families choose to have.

A funeral “is not a time for a celebration of life,” said Szabelski. “We don’t like to talk about it, but it’s a time to pray for the soul of the deceased. Very few of us are saints, so we pray for God to greet the deceased.”

Considering cremation

While the church now sanctions cremation — as long as the cremated remains are properly disposed of by burial or entombment — many who choose cremation decide against that, whether to keep the loved one with them in some form, or to scatter them on a site they believe will be meaningful.

But that thinking has flaws, Szabelski said. He once heard a caller on a WGN radio show ask what would happen with the old infield dirt when the Cubs redid their field; the contractor, a guest on the show, said it would go to a landfill. The caller was upset because, he said, he had sprinkled his father’s ashes along the third-base line.

On the other hand, families who have a Catholic funeral and burial of cremated remains — something that now accounts for 18 percent of interments at Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Chicago — also have more options, because there isn’t so much urgency to bury the body within a few days. The family could, for example, schedule a funeral weeks ahead of time, to allow far-flung loved ones to attend.

“What you see in the cemeteries of today is an expression of the faith of 2012,” Pollard said, noting that many families will buy two graves for the parents. Children expect to be buried elsewhere, or cremated with the remains placed in their parents’ graves.

At the same time, the monuments which have been erected by families — and which still are being erected — with their crosses, statues and angels provide an environment that is its own catechism in the faith.

“Cemeteries stand as a symbol of our faith, of the hope of resurrection,” Szabelski said.