BY TONI CASHNELLI
We are counting grave markers, an exercise in patience. Rows look so similar we lose count and start again.
Helping with this tedious task is Br. Adam Farkas, who is using his free period from teaching at Roger Bacon High School to be part of a photo session at St. Mary’s Cemetery in St. Bernard, Ohio. In honor of All Saints Day and All Souls Day, we are visiting the place where 339 friars of St. John the Baptist Province – our best estimate – have been laid to rest.
Other burial grounds are older. At nearby St. John’s Cemetery, founded in 1849 at the end of a cholera epidemic, 25 pioneering friars share a common grave. Brothers are buried in 15 states, from Oceanside, Calif., to Washington, D.C., from Calumet, Mich., to New Orleans, La. Some died in Europe after returning to the land of their birth. A number stayed in the Philippines, the land they came to love.
But many make their final journey to St. Mary’s New German Catholic Cemetery, dedicated in 1873 on the site of a former dairy farm. SJB friars occupy three plots, two near the Ross Avenue entrance. The third – the newest– is across the cemetery near the mausoleum. No matter when they died, Adam seems to know them all. “Here’s a Provincial,” he says, pointing to the stone for Roger Huser. “John Oldegeering,” Adam acknowledges, as though meeting him on the street. “He was a teacher,” Adam says, identifying Ermin Schneider as an occupational inspiration.
Obviously, he has heard – and remembered – stories about these friars. But there is a proprietary air in Adam’s familiarity and recognition. These are, after all, his brothers. This is his family.
Above, Adam Farkas in the newest friar section at St. Mary’s; right, Adam was inspired by stories about Ermin Schneider; below, graves in the "middle" section.
PHOTOS BY TONI CASHNELLI
“The friars and priests are not forgotten,” says Gloria Howell, secretary at St. Mary’s. “They meant a lot to people. We’ll have people come in long after the funeral and ask where they’re buried.” Gloria should know. When new residents arrive, she makes it official by hand-writing their statistics in the “Burial Book”, a Gulliver-sized ledger listing age, place of birth, most recent residence, next of kin, church, and the exact location of their grave.
“Everyone is in here,” she says, from war heroes to politicos, from sports figures to those famous by association – Reds owner Marge Schott’s parents, for example. Friars share a cemetery with Dolly Dimples, once billed as The Fat Lady with Ringling Brothers Circus. She later dropped more than 400 pounds and found fame as the author of a diet book. Dolly died a svelte 112 pounds in 1982.
Several monuments honor those lost at sea, including one erected by the Abbing family “In Memory of Our Brother [Who] Died on the Titanic.” More than 1,100 graves dated 1918 grimly remind us of the flu pandemic that killed more than 50 million people worldwide. Among the memorials is one topped with a crucifix and surrounded by dozens of tiny headstones, a tribute to orphans from St. Aloysius who died in the late 1800s.
Civil war veteran William Schmidt, buried at St. Mary’s in 1888, was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for “extraordinary heroism in rescuing a wounded comrade under terrific fire” in the battle of Missionary Ridge in Tennessee. He was 17 at the time.
Thousands at St. Mary’s never made history or headlines. But to their friends, their loved ones and brothers like Adam, they will always be heroes. “Most everyone here is Catholic,” Gloria says, referring to the cemetery staff. “They went to Roger Bacon and I hear them talk about their teachers, the friars” and their lifelong impact.
Some of them taught or coached Steve Bittner, President of the Cincinnati Catholic Cemetery Society, which operates St. Mary’s and St. John’s, as well as St. Joseph’s in Price Hill and Baltimore Pike Cemetery in Westwood. “Fr. Laurian Rausch is here, the Principal when I was at Roger Bacon,” Steve says. “Fr. Norman Perry taught me, and I served Mass for him at St. Clement. Fr. Alan Heet is at St. Mary’s; he was my athletic director at Bacon.”
Times have changed – “some of them are cremated now,” Steve says – but the ritual remains the same. “Their tradition is a simple burial process with a simple marker. It’s nice at their graveside services, they stand around and sing [The Ultima] as they lower the casket into the ground. You don’t get that at other burials.”
Adam Farkas pays his respects in the oldest friar section at St. Mary's.
Butch Abrams, Director of St. Mary’s and another Bacon grad, calls the friars “an institution, entrenched in the community. They had a strong influence on some of the employees here. I think it’s an honor to take care of their services.” Adds Gloria, “It’s not just our responsibility to take care of a person’s remains. We take care of their families.”
Br. Gene Mayer has always taken a special interest in St. Mary’s. Five years ago he had the stones in the oldest section re-etched. When the Friar plot planned by Fr. Andrew Fox opened in 1980, Gene complained, “There’s nothing there to identify that as our plot.’ I’m the one who had the brass letters [Franciscan Friars / St. John the Baptist Province] put up” on a wall that backs Ross Avenue. In Section 14, it was Gene who commissioned the cleaning of the marble statue standing guard over graves. “It’s ‘Francis Embracing the Crucified,’ without question my favorite image of Francis.”
The imposing statue of John the Baptist, the face of SJB’s annual Personnel Directory, identifies the newest section. It was not Gene’s first choice. “I was always in love with the huge bronze statue of Francis in front of St. Francis Seminary on Mill Road,” he says. “When we closed the seminary I wanted to retrieve it and put it in the cemetery.” The Council decided this was not to be. “They said, ‘No, you can’t have Francis, but as a consolation prize you can have John the Baptist,’” removed from a niche at old St. John the Baptist Church before it was demolished.
During my recent visitation in Central Illinois, I was pleased that we were able to have a “Francis Dinner” in Bloomington. The friars from St. Mary’s in Bloomington and Sacred Heart/St. Joseph in Peoria were able to pray and share a meal. We were hoping for two young men to join us and something came up for one, but we had the wonderful opportunity to meet Andres Torres, a Puerto Rican native and parishioner at St. Mary's. (He and Fr. Luis Aponte-Merced had a few things in common!) Andres is a high school senior planning on going to Notre Dame, where he will study chemical engineering. He is also contemplating medical school but remains open to the call of God in his life. As he headed off to play practice, I told him that if he has any questions or interest in our life, we would be happy to talk with him. (He’s portraying the holdout juror in a production of 12 Angry Men.) We plant the seeds; God gives the growth. If you know of any young men who might consider our life, invite them to prayer and dinner. I would be happy to join you when I come to visit, but you don’t have to wait for that.
(Excerpted from page 270 of SJB’s 1979 photo directory, The Franciscans 1859-1979)
February 1, 1975: St. Mary Cemetery, St. Bernard, OH, where most of our friars are buried, has come up with the problem of fading and deteriorating tombstones. To rectify this situation, Roger Huser, Provincial, has contracted with the Henry Kistner Monuments Co. of St. Bernard to do needed sandblasting, cleaning and re-lettering.
Stones before 1939 are in pretty bad shape. The stone will be completely refinished at a cost of $40 each (newer section); those in the older section will also be cared for at a cost of $30 each stone. 33 need attention at this time.
This newly installed monument identifies the friar plot at Holy Savior Cemetery in Bethlehem, Pa. “We have 16 graves at Holy Savior,” according to Br. Mark
Ligett of St. Francis Retreat House in Easton, “but there is only one friar buried there so far...Bill Reisteter.”
Can you find Al Mascia amongst all those hats?
Right, modeling new attire at Crescent Academy.
No tricks, just treats at MGC in Hazard.
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