Catholic cemetery staffs view work as a ministry

Diocesan Catholic cemeteries staff members listen to a reading from the Book of Sirach at the Blessing of the Cemetery Workers Feb. 7. ( Marty Denzer/Key photo)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY — Whether old, new or somewhere in between, Catholic Cemeteries are special places. They are the final resting places of individuals and families of faith, often multi-generational, watched over by staffs who consider it a vital ministry to both the dead and the living.

Bishop James Johnston Jr. of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, which owns and operates the four Catholic cemeteries under its auspices, on Feb. 7 blessed the office staffs, grounds crews and the managers in the mausoleum chapel at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Kansas City. Staff and crew members from Mount Olivet, Resurrection, Mount St. Mary’s and Mount Olivet- St. Joseph, including Managing Partners Steve Pierce and Charlie Passantino, and Steve Reyes, General Manager, gathered to receive the blessing.

Following a reading from the Book of Sirach, the bishop reminded those present that “Whenever we reach out to someone who is hurting, whether in body or in spirit, we are reaching out to Christ.”

Burying the dead is one of the Corporal Works of Mercy. The word Corporal comes from the Latin corpus, the body.

“Caring for the dead is also caring for their families,” he said. “You are the hands and feet of Jesus in your work.”

Acknowledging that it was a livelihood, but certainly more than that, he explained that, “A Catholic cemetery is a place were heaven and earth meet!” He continued, encouraging the office staffs and grounds crews to be an instrument of the Lord in their work.

He said that this is a place where we are truly reminded of the major part of our faith — the death of Christ. As such it is a place of supreme hope. Yes, it is a place of death, but also a place of Christian hope. We die with him so we can rise with him. Let us acknowledge the victory of Christ over death!

“In your work on behalf of the Church,” he said, “you represent the diocese. We pray for all those whose lives will be touched by your work and ministry. It is a ministry of comfort and reassurance.”

The blessing ended with Bishop Johnston asking God to “bless these servants who so generously serve others.”

General Manager Steve Reyes praised members of the staff and grounds crews at the four cemeteries for their care of families.

He said working at the Catholic cemeteries is not just a job, it’s a ministry to the living as well as the dead.

“After about a year, they start asking ‘How can I help these families make good decisions that are affordable? How can I reassure the families that we care? The care we give families after a death is very important. And it’s a ministry that makes us feel good about working here. Some have been here 20 years or more.”

He added that changes and upgrades have occurred in the past few years at several of the cemeteries, especially Resurrection and Mt. Olivet-KC.

Founded in 1948, Mount Olivet Cemetery, located at 7601 Blue Ridge Blvd., offers 160 acres of land with a variety of beautiful gardens, sprawling views, a mausoleum and inground inurnment gardens as well as a columbarium for cremains. There are new garden features, statues and artwork that reflect the name of individual gardens. For example, a statue of St. Therese of Liseux was recently installed in the garden honoring her as was a statue of the Good Shepherd with a water feature in Good Shepherd Garden. The mausoleum will be expanded to offer more spaces.

Trellises have been installed in some of the gardens on which climbing roses will be trained. Visitors to The Legacy Gardens, honoring military veterans and First Responders, can stroll along paths under flags billowing in the breeze and gaze over treetops and rolling hills toward the horizon. There is still land available for future development of the cemetery.

Founded in 1968, Resurrection Cemetery, located at 5002 NE Cookingham Drive, offers 180 acres containing inground, mausoleum and columbarium burials. There is also plenty of land for future development.

Mount Olivet St. Joseph, founded in 1894 and Mount St. Mary’s in Kansas City, founded in 1877, are kept beautiful and peaceful, although there is less land available for burial space. Both cemeteries have fascinating histories and historic burials.

Catholic Cemeteries Managing partners Charlie Passantino, owner of Passantino Brothers Funeral Home, and Steve Pierce, owner of Muehlebach Funeral Care, together have 66 years of funeral experience. Their involvement on the funeral side enables them to be pro-active on the cemetery side.

The two funeral homes have long been familiar to Kansas City Catholics. 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 on to Leonard and his cousin Buddy and from Leonard to his son Charlie. The funeral home was originally the home of Charlie’s grandmother, who lived there until her death.

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 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.

Steve Pierce became interested in the work as a teenager, working in a funeral home in his small hometown. In 2001 Pierce, by then a funeral director for 19 years, took on a leadership role at Muehlebach. Two years later Steve and Nicole Pierce purchased the funeral home and took over its operation.

Both men agree that church/family ownership and management of the cemeteries is much more personal than that of corporate-owned cemeteries. They were pleased with Bishop Johnston’s blessing, calling it a service to the workers.

They also agree that Catholic cemetery work is a ministry, more than a business. Taking time for people is very important, Passantino said.

Pierce said he genuinely enjoys helping people. Employees of the funeral homes and the cemeteries step up and help whenever they are needed.

“It is not just a job,” he insisted.

Passantino said that staff family members, wives, siblings and children, all help out at the cemeteries, for events, even just pitching in to clean the grounds. It gives visitors a sense of families helping families.

Grounds crews lead Greg Robel has been on staff at the cemeteries for 31 years in March. His father worked in sales in the office and Greg needed a job, and he liked working outside. Within six months tor so, he knew this would be his ministry.

He said he takes his work to heart as he has family resting in Mt. Olivet-KC.

“It’s a corporal work of mercy, a ministry,” he said. “It makes you feel good when you help people. Making people happy makes us happy! Especially when we do something that families appreciate, like mowing the grass, tackling weeds, planting flowers and trees, keeping the ground clean, whatever is needed.”

Several years ago, a burial was scheduled at Mt. Olivet and when Passantino arrived with the family, he saw a Bud Light can near the site. Before he could scoop it up and hide it, the deceased’s wife thanked him. Her husband had worked for Budweiser and she believed the empty can would have made him so happy.

Robel said decorations on markers, headstones and columbariums often reflect the personalities of the deceased. “I’ve seen footballs, cigars, beer cans, baseball caps and children’s toys. When the weather has gotten to the decorations, our mowers usually pick up the fading, torn up decorations and dispose of them. The mowers are pretty thoughtful people.”

The grounds men are multi-faceted. “Along with keeping the cemeteries looking good, we know to be respectful at funerals,” Robel said. “And respect is reassuring. We make sure families know we are here for them at a funeral and beyond.”

That attitude overarches the entire staff at all four cemeteries. Catholic cemetery staff, managers, grounds crews — well, everyone views their work as a ministry, helping families at difficult times in life for the glory of God and making certain that those families know their loved one is in or on holy ground and care will be taken of that ground for as long as the cemeteries exist.

To learn more about the diocesan Catholic Cemeteries, visit www.cemeterieskcsj.org, or call the main office at Mt. Olivet, (816) 353-1900.

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Tuesday
May 26, 2020
Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph