By Renae Kranz
Running a parish can keep a priest quite busy. Confessions, Masses, funerals, weddings, emergencies, and parish administrative work are just some of the things vying for their attention every day. Among all these responsibilities, priests also need to tend to their relationship with Jesus and do good works for others.
One group of priests has found a way to help others, but these “others” are not able to thank them or show any kind of gratitude, at least not in this life. They tend to those who have died and have no one to pray for them.
Father Jordan Samson, pastor of Christ the King Parish in Sioux Falls, was riding with a funeral home director in early 2020 to a burial at St. Michael Catholic Cemetery. The funeral director made reference to a “pauper’s graveyard” that Father Samson had not heard about before. He learned it was the Minnehaha County Cemetery where the poor or “unclaimed” can receive burial.
“The word ‘unclaimed’ really struck me,” Father Samson said. “I was saddened to discover that someone can die and no one claims the body, or that someone can be described as unclaimed. The thought arose in my mind and a desire on my heart to show some charity to this place of rest and the poor souls who are buried there.”
About a month later, Father Samson learned more about the cemetery from Phil Schmitz of George Boom Funeral Home who manages the burials at Minnehaha County Cemetery. Father Samson and Father John Rutten made a trip to the cemetery on Memorial Day (2020) to pray for those buried there. They noticed that little maintenance was done to the property. They also couldn’t help but feel pulled to do something for the roughly 200 unmarked graves in a large field.
Birth of a service ministry
Father Samson was feeling a real desire to do something for the souls buried at this cemetery, but he knew he would need help. His involvement in a Catholic movement called Communion and Liberation had become a big part of his life and spirituality. The movement emphasizes taking up charitable works together, so he knew he could reach out to other priests in the movement to begin this good work together.
“From a document we read together about charitable work it says, ‘above all, our very nature requires us to be interested in others … we do charitable work so that we may learn to fulfill the task of becoming ourselves.’ It also says that we do charitable work to live like Christ—Christ who ‘became poor and shared our nothingness,’” Father Samson said. “We really see it as a fruit of our communion and life together.”
Now once a month several priests go to the cemetery together to trim bushes and clean up garbage. Some of the graves in the large field have been there since the 1880s, mostly unmarked, unknown and unclaimed. Recently they’ve been setting headstones to mark the previously unmarked graves, making the unknown known once again.
“It is our hope that this work recognizes them, remembers them,” Father Samson said. “We always end our time by praying for them and for their repose, that they would know, finally, what it is to belong to God.”
Father Paul Rutten, pastor at St. Mary Parish in Sioux Falls, is one of the priests who has been working with Father Samson on this project. It’s had an impact on both of them.
“Every person’s life matters and to have a dignified resting place with a marker is the least we can do for our brothers and sisters who have gone before us,” Father Rutten said. “As Catholics, we are called to pray for the dead, and one would imagine some of these people may not have anyone around who still remembers them or prays for them. It has helped me to be cognizant of the fact that one day I will be in need of other’s prayers and sacrifices. It also reminds me that even small gestures done with love can have a profound impact on the lives of others.”
Father Samson has been reminded of how short life is as they work at the cemetery. “I think it’s important that everyone have a place to rest, and to know that their life in some mysterious way, really does matter,” he said.
“It has been a simple gesture, but one that reflects the importance of each person who walks on this earth,” Father Rutten said. “While no one may ever see these headstones, it reminds me that we should simply do what has been asked of us by God and trust that that is enough.”