By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key reporter
KANSAS CITY — The diocesan Catholic cemeteries, Mt. Olivet, Mount St. Mary’s, Resurrection and Mt. Olivet in St. Joseph, are coming under new management. The management team will be Steve Pierce, president of Muehlebach Funeral Home, Charlie Passantino, owner-president of Passantino Brothers Funeral Home and general manager David Kies.
Cemeteries director Joe Harris plans to retire at the end of this month. When his retirement was first announced at a meeting several months ago, he suggested Passantino and Pierce take over the direction of the cemeteries. Collectively they have 60 years of funeral experience, they had been closely connected with the cemeteries for several years, in sales and marketing, and this was a chance to expand their role into the operations of cemetery management. Their involvement on the funeral side would enable them to be pro-active on the cemetery side.
The two funeral homes have been familiar to Kansas City Catholics for many years. Brothers Charles, George and Rosario Passantino opened Passantino Bros. Funeral Home in 1930 and started a tradition of professional, personal and compassionate service to each family they served. Being family owned enabled them to honor traditions of each family. That standard passed to Leonard and his cousin Buddy and from Leonard to his son Charlie Passantino. The funeral home is still at the original location.
In 1954, James V. “Bud” Harrington opened Muehlebach Funeral Home to serve families in the neighborhoods near 68th Street and Troost Avenue, and began offering prearranged funeral plans, one of the first funeral homes to do so in the United States. The idea took hold. James S. Harrington joined his father’s business in 1963 and in 1977 was named president of the funeral home. He bought Muehlebach Funeral Home from his father in 1995. Bud died in 2002.
In 2001 Steve Pierce, a funeral director for 19 years, took on a leadership role, with Harrington, at the funeral home. Two years later Steve and Nicole Pierce took over the funeral home’s operation. Jim Harrington is actively connected to the firm and owns and heads Preneed Muehlebach, Inc.
After consideration, Pierce and Passantino decided to approach the diocesan cemetery board. Their expanding into cemetery management was met with approval by Bishop Robert W. Finn, Father Charles Rowe, David Malanowski and the other board members. The search was on for a general manager of the cemeteries, who would handle the day to day operations under the oversight of Passantino and Pierce.
Passantino said there were multiple interviews for the position of operations manager, some from as far away as Texas and Massachusetts. David Kies had 30 years’ experience in marketing, finance and regulation before serving as business manager for Visitation Parish in Kansas City. He brings familiarity with the diocese and a wealth of business experience to the position.
A cemetery is not only the final resting place of loved ones. Kies sees a cemetery as a business. He said that not long ago he attended a funeral in Dubuque, Iowa, and recalled that his grandfather ran a cemetery in Dubuque. “I guess it’s in my blood,” he said.
He is familiar with the peace of a cemetery. “I live right behind a small cemetery,” he said, “they’re the greatest neighbors!”
Joe Harris was the first lay person hired to serve as director of the Catholic cemeteries in this diocese. He has directed the four cemeteries since 2007. Before then, the cemeteries had been under the direction of priests.
• Msgr. Matthew D. Tierney. Listed in Catholic Directory until 1942. Prior to 1940, there is no listing for the Cemetery Board. Served as supervisor of St. Mary’s Cemetery, at the time the only diocesan cemetery.
• Msgr. Thomas B. McDonald: 1942 – 1953
• Msgr. George W. King: 1954-1958, instrumental in the development of Mt. Olivet Cemetery
• Msgr. Henry G. Bauer: 1959-1981, served as treasurer, vice-president and president of the National Catholic Cemetery Conference 1960-66; director of Catholic cemeteries 1958-81.
• Father Robert Cameron: 1981-2007 Diocesan Director of Cemeteries
Mt. St. Mary’s was founded by Father Bernard Donnelly in 1877. Father Donnelly is buried in the cemetery as are many other early priests, religious sisters and founders of Kansas City.
The other three cemeteries were founded by bishops. Mt. Olivet-St. Joseph was established on land acquired by St. Joseph Bishop Maurice Burke in 1894. The first recorded burial was in May 1895. Three Bishops of the St. Joseph Diocese are buried in the cemetery — Bishop Burke, Francis Gilfillan and Charles LeBlond — as are Joseph Rubidoux, founder of St. Joseph, and many members of his family.
Mt. Olivet –Kansas City was founded by Archbishop Edwin O’Hara, and dedicated in 1948. Archbishop O’Hara is buried there as is Bishop John Sullivan and Msgr. George King.
The St. Joseph and Kansas City dioceses were merged by Pope Pius XII in Aug. 1956 and directorship of Mt. Olivet Cemetery in St. Joseph was transferred to Kansas City, the new See.
Resurrection Cemetery was established by Bishop Charles Helmsing in 1959, and dedicated in 1960. Bishop Helmsing is buried in Resurrection and, in 1970 about 30 burials from the closed Platte City Catholic Cemetery were reinterred there.
All four cemeteries are aging, which has its both good and not so good. On the positive side, the diocesan cemeteries have been owned by the same entity, the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, for more than 50 years. Families won’t have to question who owns the cemeteries now or 50 years down the road, Pierce said. The other cemeteries in the diocese are all corporately owned and some have changed ownership fairly regularly over the years.
The employees of the Catholic cemeteries view their jobs as a ministry. Passantino added, “They are very devoted to their jobs and take a lot of pride in what they do.” Groundskeepers often become friends with people who visit the graves of loved ones regularly, he said.
And, in the 137 years since the founding of Mount St. Mary’s, Catholic cemeteries have remained not-for-profit. That makes them the most economical choice for Catholic families.
The new management team looks forward to the future. Pierce said, “We want to make sure families who have already entrusted their loved ones to one of the Catholic cemeteries are taken care of, as well as those in the future. We want to be progressive in maintaining and developing the cemeteries. The commitment and longevity of employees is important. “
Passantino and Pierce said the management team will develop a long-term, strategic plan to develop goals for three, five and 10 years down the road. At the same time, immediate needs will be addressed, such as the need for additional mausoleum space for cremains. One way the team plans to learn ways to make the cemeteries better will be to talk to and listen to the cemetery employees.
Pierce and Passantino are excited about Dave Kies joining the management team. “He brings a whole new fresh set of eyes and perspectives,” Passantino said.
“A cemetery should look beautiful,” Kies said. “Cleanliness and looking good are welcoming to families. After all, a Catholic cemetery is sacred space; it’s an outdoor church and should be treated that way.”
He looks forward to working with Passantino and Pierce “to map out a strategic plan to ensure service to those here and those who will be coming,” he said.