By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — At a sun-filled spot in Resurrection Cemetery about 30 middle school students from St. Patrick Grade School gathered with Father Justin Hoye, pastor of St. Patrick Parish, Deacon Mike Lewis, several teachers and parents and Charlie Passantino, co-managing director of Catholic Cemeteries, to bury the cremains of Sunday Lewis in consecrated ground on Jan. 28.
She wasn’t known to the students, Father Hoye, Deacon Lewis or any of the teachers and parents. She wasn’t even from the Kansas City area.
Some weeks ago, Robin Lamb, director of Liturgy at St. Patrick Parish, found a brown plastic box on the parish office porch, labeled “Sunday Lewis” with the date of her death, date of cremation and the name and address of the funeral home/crematorium. According to the label, Sunday Lewis, a resident of San Francisco, had died in 2004 in Las Vegas, and was cremated two weeks after her death.
An unsigned note was found with them, saying, “These remain (s) I found abandoned in Coolie (sic) Park. I did not feel it to be respectfull (sic). So I hope you can take care of what is the right thing to be done.”
The box was brought inside the parish offices and given to Deacon Lewis to investigate.
Who was Sunday Lewis and why were her ashes left on the steps of the parish office, 10 years after her death and more than 1,800 miles from her home?
And to add to the mystery: Cooley Park is inside the boundaries of St. Gabriel Archangel Parish, so why were the ashes left at St. Patrick and by whom?
Father Hoye and Deacon Lewis decided to “take care of the right thing to be done,” and, according to Catholic teaching, bury the ashes in consecrated ground. “Burial of the body is most important,” Father Hoye said, one of the corporal works of mercy. This woman deserved to be buried. And an added plus was that this provided an opportunity for community building and a teaching moment.
Charlie Passantino offered to provide the burial plot and an ossuary for the inurnment.
Father Hoye and Deacon Lewis contacted Julie Hess, principal of St. Patrick’s School, to arrange for the middle school students to learn about the Catholic Church’s teaching about corporal and spiritual works of mercy, respect for the human body and life after death. Father Hoye discussed the teachings with the sixth and seventh graders and Deacon Lewis talked with the eighth graders.
Deacon Lewis said he met with them in St. Patrick’s Church as he wanted to impress upon the students that the corporal and spiritual works of mercy are part of the mission of Catholic schools. Burying the dead with dignity is an important mission of compassion, he said.
Father Hoye met with the sixth and seventh graders. He said later that he felt Sunday Lewis offered an opportunity to talk to the students about the corporal works of mercy, and teach them something about Catholic beliefs about death.
Burying the dead, a corporal work of mercy, has a long history; in the Old Testament, the Book of Tobit is the first to mention burial.
“In the days of Shalmaneser I had performed many charitable deeds for my kindred, members of my people. I would give my bread to the hungry and clothing to the naked. If I saw one of my people who had died and been thrown behind the wall of Nineveh, I used to bury him.” (Tobit 1:7-17)
“Tobit risked his life to go out and bury the dead,” Father Hoye said. ”The Church teaches and we believe that wherever Jesus went, he made things holy. By the three days he spent in the tomb, he has made holy the graves of those who believe in him.”
The grave thus becomes “a sign of hope that promises resurrection even as it claims our mortal bodies,” he quoted from a blessing of a gravesite.
Catholic Christians believe that after the Resurrection, Jesus was very real —he ate, drank and talked with his disciples, he also bore the marks of the crucifixion, scars from the nails in his hands and feet and on his side from the spear. But, he was changed in some ways, Father Hoye said, for instance, he would suddenly appear in a locked room with the disciples. “From this we know our bodies are part of the life of God, they are important.”
January 28, during Catholic Schools Week, was chosen for the services, allowing Deacon Lewis a little time to probe the past to find out more about Sunday Lewis.
With the help of phone calls, Internet searches and, as Deacon Lewis said several times, Providence, an obituary notice and some other clues came to light. In the obituary notice was the name and address of Old St. Mary’s Cathedral, where Lewis had been a member and where her memorial service was held in Sept. 2004. A phone call to Julie Todd, administrative assistant at Old St. Mary’s, opened up new information: Sunday had been active in the parish and was survived by her son, Robert and a grandson, Bobby.
A man with the same name had been a client of St. Patrick’s food pantry, but had ceased coming about the time the ashes were found. Could he be related to Sunday Lewis? And where was he now?
In the days before the burial service, Deacon Lewis, his wife Mary and the Catholic Key uncovered a bit more information, but Sunday remained a mystery. A follow-up call to Julie Todd in San Francisco shed sudden light on the mystery. A parishioner had contacted her for tax purposes and the two chatted for a while. Todd mentioned the search for background and relatives of Sunday Lewis and the parishioner said, “Sunny? I knew Sunny! We were good friends.”
The Catholic Key called the friend, Mary Kimmes, and suddenly, Sunday Lewis became a real, vital person.
Sunday, “Sunny” Lewis was born in Florida in 1947. Apparently an only child, she graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in education. After teaching for a year, she changed careers and served as a marketing director in Virginia, and later in Chicago before moving to New York. After taking classes in computer science and technology, she founded a consulting firm, Techvantage.
A son was born in 1969, and she named him Robert Gregory Lewis.
Sunny and son moved to San Francisco in 1993 or 1994, Mary Kimmes said. She became a member of Old St. Mary’s Cathedral parish and settled into the same complex where Kimmes lived. Her home was lovely, Kimmes added. The two had met through parish activities and found they had much in common.
“Sunny was so bright, so talented, she was interested in everything,” Kimmes said. “We used to go to the theater and movies together, she loved live theater. We went to the Bay Area’s galleries and museums a lot, too.”
Kimmes went on to talk about Sunny’s talent as a gourmet cook, especially Italian dishes, “and her apple pie was so, so good.” She had also surfed competitively in her youth. “Sunny was very attractive,” Mary Kimmes said, “about 5’ 6,” broad shouldered, neither big nor fat.
In 1997, Sunny founded Vantage International, a technology marketing firm that specialized in computer security products. Clients included Cisco and several other major Silicon Valley firms.
Sunny was transferred to Las Vegas soon after. Kimmes said the job was incredibly stressful, involving frequent flights to San Francisco and back. “She worked so hard, gave her best and was very outgoing.”
Kimmes would visit Sunny in Las Vegas while visiting family.
Sunny’s death was sudden, unexpected. Kimmes said she telephoned Robert Lewis when she learned of his mother’s death and when the service was to be, but that was the last time she had spoken with him.
When she heard that her friend’s ashes would be buried in consecrated ground, Kimmes said she was “happy and thankful. I think Sunny is smiling as she looks down on us and what is happening.”
In remarks before the burial service, Father Hoye again called attention to the Book of Tobit and how he had buried the dead. He reminded the students, parents and teachers that because Jesus was buried after he was taken down from the cross, the grave is now consecrated.
Deacon Lewis added that Sunday Lewis would rest in sacred ground, and Charlie Passantino said that a flat marker will be made for her and be set on her grave in God the Creator Garden.
The students were quiet and prayerful during the service. Afterward, groups of students and parents and teachers wandered around, looking at the grave markers and occasionally kneeling at a marker and brushing away leaves or sticks. Floral arrangements that had fallen over were set right and a few prayers were said, especially at the graves of newborns.
Several sixth graders discussed the experience of attending the graveside service and what they would remember.
Mia Hurt mentioned that “it felt weird walking on the graves, but it was a really peaceful place.”
Katie Koger agreed, adding that when she told her mom about the field trip to the cemetery and what it was for, her mother thought it was a “cool” thing to do.
Emily Nguyen reflected that, “One day that will probably be me there. Even if I wasn’t there wherever I will be, I’ll still be blessed. I would tell my kids someday to visit a cemetery and ‘feel blessed about what you have now. It’s (a Catholic cemetery) really special ground because you’re standing there today and one day you’ll be in heaven with God.’”
Sunday Lewis had traveled far in the past decade; now she rests in peace in Resurrection Cemetery.
Afterward: Late in the afternoon of the burial service, Deacon Lewis received a surprising phone call from Robert Lewis, the former St. Patrick’s Food pantry client. Deacon Lewis asked him what his middle name was, and he said ‘Gregory.’ Yes, Sunday’s son, Robert Gregory Lewis.
Stunned at the news that his mother’s ashes had been buried that morning at Resurrection Cemetery, he told Deacon Lewis that his truck, which contained all his belongings, had been robbed about a year ago. His mother’s ashes were among the stolen items.
Robert has reconnected with his son, Bobby, who is also in Kansas City. Robert is trying to put his life back together, although he is struggling with homelessness now.
When and why Sunday’s ashes were tossed into the Cooley Park woods, and by whom, may never be known. But, after suffering the second loss of his mother when her ashes were stolen, Robert now knows where she rests and that her grave and all those in the cemetery will be perpetually cared for.