By Melanie Ave
Weeds stood hip high at the historic Minersville Cemetery in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. Many gravestones were broken, toppled or missing. Trash, from illegal dumping, littered the cemetery’s 5.5 acres.
Three deer bucks and several wild-turkey families claimed the property as their own.
“I think any Christian walking into that cemetery would be broken-hearted,” said Debra Terhune, a member of First Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Oakland, Pa., and a cemetery-board member. “It was very sad.”
But one year ago a group of Pittsburgh-area Lutherans could not tolerate the cemetery’s neglect any longer.
Pittsburgh Area Lutheran Ministries (PALM) board members realized if they didn’t take control of the LCMS-owned cemetery soon, they never would, said Cheryl D. Naumann, a deaconess at Redeemer Lutheran Church and School in Oakmont, Pa., and one of the lead organizers of the cemetery’s restoration.
“We needed to do something drastic,” said Naumann, a church historian. “We needed the cemetery in pristine condition for the sake of the people there and as a witness to the community.”
More than 5,000 people are buried in Minersville Cemetery, which was founded in 1862. There are bodies of Civil War soldiers, Major League Baseball pitcher Frank “Piano Mover” Smith, World War I veterans and graves owned by the founder of a Pittsburgh hospital, the Rev. William A. Passavant. Church records show members from at least six area Lutheran churches are buried there, many of them stillborn babies and some of their mothers.
Cemetery volunteers tapped the LCMS Foundation fund that had been set aside for the cemetery’s upkeep after it became LCMS property when Second St. Paul Lutheran Church closed in the early 1980s, receiving $7,300. PALM, which has maintained the cemetery on behalf of the LCMS since 1997, added another $2,400 to the cleanup.
“By getting the cemetery project going, we are confessing Christ died for the people buried there and that He remembers His promise: He is coming to restore them to life,” said the Rev. Brian Westgate, president of PALM and pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Butler, Pa.
Over a two-week period in July, a group of volunteers from area LCMS congregations and a professional landscaping company mowed grass, pulled weeds, removed dead trees and filled five dump trucks full of trash and debris from the cemetery.
Grave markers, hidden for years by weeds, vines and brush, were finally visible.
The neighborhood’s residents thanked the workers.
Naumann said the cemetery now looks marvelous. “For the first time, people can see inside the cemetery from the perimeter,” she said.
It’s only the beginning of the group’s restoration plans for the cemetery.
“We’re really interested in preserving the place,” said the Rev. Edward Naumann, assistant pastor at Redeemer Lutheran and chairman of the cemetery’s board. “It’s something fundamental to humankind. We want our remains to be undisturbed and treated with respect. You do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
The original fund established to care for the cemetery is almost depleted. The cemetery board is now raising money and applying for grants to help pay for the cemetery’s regular upkeep and for improvements that include perimeter fencing, lighting and road paving.
A group of eight deaconess students from Concordia University Chicago, River Forest, Ill., photographed and logged graves in early September.
Terhune said all of the cemetery records — with photographs of the grave markers — will be put online at the Hillman Library at the University of Pittsburgh.
The board also would like to place the records on-site in an all-weather book so family members of the deceased can easily find them.
“This cemetery belongs to the Missouri Synod,” Naumann said. “We’re doing this, not just because we live here in Pittsburgh. We’re doing it because we love our church. We want this to be a witness to the resurrection of life and to honor the saints that have gone before us and honor the lives they lived to the glory of Christ.”
While going through the cemetery’s records, Terhune came across yellowed newspaper clippings showing Boy Scouts holding U.S. flags near the graves of veterans on Veterans Day and Memorial Day ceremonies — long before the Minersville Cemetery was forgotten.
“I want to see that again,” she said. “It’s a matter of reverence.”
To see a photo album from the cemetery’s cleanup, click here.
To support the restoration effort, contributions may be mailed to the Minersville Cemetery Fund, c/o LCMS Foundation, 1333 S. Kirkwood Road, St. Louis, MO 63122-7295.
Melanie Ave is a senior writer and social media coordinator with LCMS Communications.