Ministers at archdiocesan cemeteries and columbariums walk with mourning families as they bury their loved ones

By Effie Caldarola
The North Star Catholic

Death, especially a sudden death, can demand decisions that come at a most difficult time. Not everyone has made plans.

For the Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau, there are resources that can help. The approach of Memorial Day at the end of May is an opportunity to explore avenues available.

“We work with families from beginning to end of the process,” said Dan Belanger, who oversees the archdiocesan cemetery ministry at Sacred Heart Parish in Wasilla.

Dan Belanger began working with his dad, Dave, many years ago when Archbishop Francis Hurley asked the elder Belanger to take over the cemetery ministry. After his dad died, it seemed a natural step for the younger man to continue the ministry of helping grieving Catholic families.

Belanger’s day job is as a facility compliance coordinator for the Mat-Su School District. But the cemetery project takes a good part of his free time.

That means he meets with families, helps them select plots, and choose and set monuments. Belanger digs the graves himself, maintains the property, clears the trails and parking lot of snow in winter, and sees to mowing and tree removal in summer.

Sacred Heart is an archdiocesan Catholic cemetery, as is one near Glennallen associated with the Copper Valley School. But there are Catholic burial spots in many places. Some rural parishes have cemeteries. One of them, at St. John Neumann Mission in Cooper Landing, was the site chosen by the late Archbishop Hurley for his own resting place.

St. Patrick Parish in Anchorage has added a columbarium to house cremated remains on its campus within the past ten years. Business manager John Gagnon said the site has almost 700 spaces on seven different walls, more than three fourths of which are available. The spaces are not limited to Catholics, although certain rules and regulations must be observed.

In Juneau, the National Shrine of St. Therese of Lisieux, nestled on 46 acres of great natural beauty with cabins and hiking trails, is home to a Catholic columbarium. The website of the shrine includes photos of the columbarium site and information on costs and applications.

Shrine executive director Joseph Sehnert said the columbarium is open to all those who profess “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” There are about 800 niches, some single and some double, with over 60 percent filled.

There are no burial sites at the Shrine, said Sehnert, with two notable exceptions.

The first bishop of the territory of Alaska, Bishop Joseph Crimont, is buried in the crypt under the altar of the Shrine’s chapel. Crimont was a Frenchman who came to the U.S. in 1886 and was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1888. St. John Bosco had predicted that the young man would become a missionary, and Father Crimont served in many parts of Alaska, including at Holy Cross in the Interior.

He was consecrated a bishop in 1917 and served the Alaska territories in that position until his death in 1945. Flags throughout the Alaska territory flew at halfmast for three days when he died.

Also buried in the crypt under the Shrine’s altar is Bishop Michael Kenny, who served as Bishop of Juneau from 1979 to 1995. Bishop Kenny died suddenly of an aneurysm while visiting the Holy Land. He was wellloved in Juneau, and the city newspaper the Juneau Empire wrote in an editorial when he died, “Juneau has lost its most respected voice.”

Although many public cemeteries in Southeast have sections consecrated, or blessed, for Catholic burials, there are no Catholic cemeteries in current use in the area, said Sehnert. Some, like one on Douglas Island, have fallen into disrepair with many of the grave markers being undecipherable. There was a time when cremation was not allowed for Catholics, but the practice is accepted now and has become increasingly popular.

One reason that cremation is growing in popularity in Alaska may be that, in a practice unfamiliar to most folks in the Lower 48, burials are not done in Alaska during the winter months due to frozen ground. Belanger said funeral homes in Alaska have cold storage facilities for the purpose of storing bodies, but it means mourning families must sometimes wait months to conclude burial services for their deceased. Depending on how severe the winter, said Belanger, burials may not take place until late spring.

Even though cremations are increasing, Belanger said rules govern the practice.

“There’s a stipulation that ashes must be intact,” he said.

In other words, no scattering of ashes and no reserving some of the ashes to remain on the mantelpiece.

Likewise, the burial must be “of full bodily remains.” This doesn’t preclude those who wish to be organ donors, but it does mean that body parts can’t be divided into more than one burial site.

Many public cemeteries in Southcentral Alaska have sections dedicated to Catholic burials. In Anchorage, the 35-acre Angelus Memorial Park near the Old Seward Highway and O’Malley Road has a large Catholic section.

And in downtown Anchorage, the historic Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery, at 22 acres and covering nine city blocks, has a space dedicated to Catholic burial.

Notable Catholics buried in the blessed ground there include the late Vicar General Father Steven Moore and long-time Anchorage mayor George Sullivan. Also buried there is John Bagoy, a Holy Family parishioner whom Archbishop Hurley commissioned to clean up the Catholic part of the cemetery and collect better records. Bagoy’s project soon encompassed revitalizing the entire cemetery, highlighting the Catholic commitment to honor the remains of the dead.

“I look at this as a ministry as well as a job,” said Belanger of his work with Sacred Heart’s cemetery.

Clearing brush, flower installation, keeping records, a sympathetic ear when someone is picking out a monument, an assurance of consecrated ground – these become an important consolation to those who are burying their dead in the hope of resurrection.

'Ministers at archdiocesan cemeteries and columbariums walk with mourning families as they bury their loved ones'
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