By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
IOWA CITY — Last month, leaders from the Newman Catholic Student Center cleaned and leveled headstones in a local cemetery where some of the first Catholics in the area are buried.
“My hope in organizing service in this area of the cemetery was that they would feel that connection we have as a Catholic community; that includes the communion of saints,” said Ann Thomas, outreach assistant.
The service project at St. Joseph Cemetery was part of a two-day retreat for Newman Catholic Student Center staff, FOCUS missionaries and student fellows. The retreat offered Newman Center leaders an opportunity to build relationships through prayer, Scripture, reflection and service while focusing on the upcoming school year, said Christine Wissink, director of outreach and education. She described the volunteer work at the cemetery as corporal and spiritual works of mercy for those who have died.
Many students used a special biologic, nonabrasive solution to clean headstones. Others, including Priest Director Father Jeff Belger, used the cemetery’s tombstone jack to address sinking and tipping issues in the older part of the cemetery. It does not have the staff to correct the stones and many of the stones belong to people with no living relatives in the area, “so it is all reliant on volunteer efforts,” Thomas said.
The jack is a simple way to level a stone by raising it, correcting the sinking and resetting it. “It is remarkably easy to use and doesn’t take much muscle at all.”
Thomas said it is easy to forget that the people buried in the cemetery are still in need of prayers, “and hopefully they are praying for us.” She showed volunteers family plots of donors whose names appear in the windows of local churches. She said she feels a strong connection with the windows in O’Keefe chapel at Newman Center and the Morisson family, whose names appear on several windows there. They are buried in St. Joseph Cemetery.
As the day wrapped up, the group reflected on their service and then returned to Newman Center to pray the rosary and celebrate Mass. Thomas said several students expressed an interest in returning to the cemetery to clean headstones.
University of Iowa senior Cassie McNitt, a faith formation special events fellow at the Newman Center, said the cemetery project made an impact on her. “I’ve prayed for the holy souls in purgatory at Mass and on occasion at cemeteries, but it never felt like I was doing enough to love them.” Cleaning headstones presented another way to care for the dead. “As I scrubbed each headstone, it would slowly reveal more information about the soul I was caring for. It was really amazing to know only the most basic information and still feel the love pouring out from the Lord. It also allowed me to pray for specific names and families rather than the holy souls in purgatory as an entity.”