November 2007 - Volume 12, Issue 4
In Southern Maryland, in a little place called Newtowne, is the oldest Catholic Church in continuous use in the original thirteen colonies. Named for Saint Francis Xavier, the parish was founded in 1640. If my memory is correct, the current church dates back to 1731 and was painstakingly restored about 25 years ago. During that process, we were surprised to find that two Jesuit priests had been buried in the vestibule. As was the custom, their heads were laid to rest on the small altar stone these missionary priests had brought with them as they traveled from place to place offering Holy Mass.
Although their burial place had become obscured with the passage of centuries, they were nonetheless inscribed in the memory of the Church. When this venerable church was re-consecrated following its restoration, the homilist spoke of these priests and all the generations of deceased parishioners who had died as "a cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12:1) with whom we were joined in prayer.
Although the names of so many are lost to history, they are never lost from the memory of the Church. For in the celebration of the Mass "earth unites with Heaven" as we proclaim God's praises with all the saints and angels. So too, in the celebration of the Mass and Sacraments, we are joined with those yet in Purgatory who, with us in the Church on earth, continue to do penance so as to become "capable of Christ, capable of God, and thus capable of unity with the whole Communion of Saints" (see Johann Auer and Joseph Ratzinger, Dogmatic Theology: Eschatology, p. 230 ff.).
We are approaching the Feast of All Souls (November 2), when the Church remembers the dead who are still undergoing the final transformation which God's mercy makes possible. It is the fire of God's love that burns away our dross and re-forms us into vessels of divine joy. Priests throughout the diocese will be offering Mass on All Souls' Day and throughout the month of November, asking that those who have not yet been fully transformed may speedily enter upon the joy of the Kingdom of God. Knowing our own weaknesses, most of us find it reassuring that God's mercy provides for this final process of purification, and that in the Church's liturgy every such soul is long remembered and prayed for.
Preceding All Souls' Day is All Saints' Day. This Holy Day of Obligation (November 1) is a favorite with people of all ages but especially children. It's a day to dramatize famous saints but also to remember the un-canonized saints in Heaven. Again, we find deep consolation in this feast. We are a Church with more than a billion members backed up by generation upon generation who preceded us in faith. Only God knows all the names of these saints, yet as our worship is joined to Christ's, these untold generations are not forgotten. They are remembered and recognized as gratefully we accept the teaching of our faith that we worship in union with them.
Like the Blessed Virgin Mary, Holy Mother Church keeps in her memory the names of all her children who have died. And this is reflected in the way we worship and in our burial practices. A few nights ago, I was speaking with a gentleman who, years ago, had served Mass at Saint Augustine Cathedral. He recounted serving a funeral Mass for a man who had neither money nor loved ones. He died, all alone in the world. Contrary to custom, the priest invited the altar servers to accompany him to the cemetery. There, at Saint Augustine Cemetery, this poor man and many others like him received Christian burial, together with parishioners who were known and loved by all. These, too, are long remembered and cherished by the Church.
In recent days, it has been said that those buried in Saint Augustine Cemetery in Bridgeport are "long forgotten." The claim has been made that this cemetery has been neglected and that those buried therein are no longer respected. On this page you will see for yourself pictures of Saint Augustine Cemetery today, and a commentary by Ray Capo describes both the care given to this venerable cemetery and also the challenges we face in doing so.
Aside from the sensationalism and inaccuracies of media stories, Saint Augustine Cemetery is very old and in a very tough part of Bridgeport where vandalism is always a threat, day and night. Faithfully, every two weeks, the cemetery crew mows, trims around the head stones, and removes the trash and litter that has accumulated. We have sought to preserve the old sandstone grave markers, knowing that if they were set upright they would either crumble or be knocked over again by vandals. Over the years, we've fixed the fence and the gate innumerable times, only to have them broken again.
It's frustrating for all of us that this part of Bridgeport has deteriorated so badly that it is almost impossible to escape the destructiveness that is so evident throughout this neighborhood. This does not mean we will stop trying to maintain this historic cemetery.
On the contrary, we're redoubling our efforts, even as the Church remains an enormous force for good throughout the city of Bridgeport and far beyond. Indeed, few organizations are doing more in the disadvantaged neighborhood of Connecticut's largest city than are the parishes, schools, and charitable institutions of the diocese.
Those buried in this cemetery, like all the Church's beloved dead, are far from forgotten. They are remembered in the heart of the Church. They are prayed for and cherished every time Mass is celebrated and the dead are commemorated. Their names are not lost, even those who died so many years ago and whose families are no longer known.
As we enter upon this season of remembrance, may I suggest that each of us makes it a point to visit the burial places of our loved ones there to pray for the happy repose of their immortal souls.
May I also suggest that we participate in the practice of having Masses said for friends and loved ones who have died. In the power of the Holy Spirit, we can continue to remember and to care for our beloved dead in and through the redeeming love of Christ. It is wonderful to have keepsakes of the deceased and to hand on our memories of them to succeeding generations. It is also important that we maintain well their burial places out of respect and love.
But the greatest act of love and remembrance we can offer them is to remember them in our prayers. We should pray not only for those whom we knew in this life but for all the beloved dead, confident that our prayers can benefit even those who hail from another time and another place. That is how no one is forgotten.
Eternal rest grant unto them O, Lord
and let perpetual light shine upon them.
May they rest in peace!
Setting The Record Straight On Saint Augustine Cemetery
Fairfield County Catholic, October 20, 2007
Editor's note: Earlier this month, two articles and several letters in a certain Bridgeport newspaper painted an unflattering and inaccurate picture of one of the oldest Catholic cemeteries in the Diocese of Bridgeport, Saint Augustine Cemetery. Ray Capo, director of Catholic cemeteries, submitted the following letter to the editor to clarify the situation and express the truth. We share the letter here for the benefit of those who seek the facts but cannot always find them in print.
October 11, 2007
Dear Newspaper Editor:
The articles by your reporter and photographer on Saint Augustine Cemetery did not give an accurate account of the facts or the history of care for this sacred ground. The subsequent Letters to the Editor reflected the sensationalism of the writing. As a result, visitors to Saint Augustine's might be surprised to see that it is anything but junk-filled.
I'd like to set the record straight, and share information that I did give to the reporter (I never spoke to the photographer) but which did not make her final story.
The Diocese of Bridgeport cares for all its Cemeteries, those still active and open, and those which have been closed to burials for many years. For "inactive" cemeteries like Saint Augustine's, our maintenance crews visit regularly to mow the grass, trim around the headstones, and pick up the trash. This is done every two weeks during the spring and summer months, and every month during the winter.
This work is, frankly, discouraging, because as soon as trash is removed, it seems to pile up all over again. Our records, for example, document the removal of an old mattress, and now another has returned. We have removed that one, too.
The same is true with fencing and gates. The letter writers have the mistaken impression that Saint Augustine's is not fenced. On the contrary, it is fully fenced and gated, and a sign at the entrance indicates it is a cemetery. But it is not a public park. None of our cemeteries are. It should not be used as a shortcut or as a haven for illegal activity.
However, as soon as we repair the fence or close the gates, they are torn down or forced open. Too many people use the property for purposes other than paying respect to the deceased.
Do we wish we could do more? Yes. But the Church in the inner city faces the twin realities of neighborhood change and vandalism. This is not a new problem, but decades old, and solutions will not be found until all parties - the neighborhood, the city, the police, and so forth - come together to improve the neighborhood, together.
This brings me to the headstones. Saint Augustine's dates back more than 100 years. The headstones which are lying flat (and have been lying flat for decades) are old, and many are made of sandstone, which crumbles upon the touch. Righting the headstones, as the reporter and others suggest we do, could destroy them and certainly make them susceptible to vandalism. Their current state is not a form of disrespect but, rather, a form of protection.
Can we do better? Yes. Are we neglecting sacred ground and dishonoring the memory of the deceased as your newspaper implies? Absolutely not!
We will repair the fence, again, and close the gates. We will continue to mow the grass, trim around the headstones, and remove the trash, as we have done for decades. But we ask for greater understanding and respect from the neighbors and more support from the city and the police. We promise to continue maintaining our property to the best of our ability, as a good neighbor should.
One final word. Volunteers have offered to help with cleanup. We are grateful for their interest, but this is neither possible nor practical, given the potential for accidents. Our maintenance crews are dedicated and hard working and more than up to the task.
But we share the concern of all for the preservation of consecrated ground, and we will continue to look for ways to ensure its history and sense of respect for those who came before us.
Director of Catholic Cemeteries, Diocese of Bridgeport
Spirituality for Today contents copyright 1996-2016 Clemons Productions Inc. and the Diocese of Bridgeport unless otherwise noted