Cross Cleaning

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The rising sun glints off the metal plaques and warms the black metal crosses that line the eastern edge of the Saint Vincent Cemetery in three long rows. Some monuments are more recent, while many have been there for years, as Matthew, the first gospel writer, notes, “Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (25:13).

Some of the older burials were becoming difficult to read with the natural reaction of the bronze plaques corroding as the copper alloy reacts with water in the form of rain, as well as humidity, forming a green fuzz that can eventually eat away at the metal. Many visitors to cemeteries have noticed this process, as did a Saint Vincent College student. That student, Julia Sarnowski, a participant in the Benedictine Leadership Studies program (BLS), wanted to do something about it.

That, said Dr. Michael Krom, is exactly what, grounded in Benedictine Wisdom Tradition, students in the BLS program were being trained to do. They read the Rule written by Saint Benedict—just as the Benedictine monks at the Archabbey do—as well as The Life of Saint Benedict by Saint Gregory the Great. They also become acquainted with the ten Benedictine hallmarks, which are distilled from the Rule. The challenge is teaching them to seamlessly integrate those hallmarks into their lives: love of God and neighbor, prayer, stability, conversatio (way of life), obedience, discipline, humility, stewardship, hospitality and community.

Sarnowski, who is now a senior, went to Dr. Krom about her desire to help, and a project was born. After obtaining permission from cemetery director Dennis Garman, they began, led by Sarnowski and Krom, professor of philosophy at Saint Vincent College and also a member of the Saint Vincent Seminary faculty, who directs the BLS. Joined by about 15 other BLS students, they gathered in the mausoleum two years ago and started the day with prayer. Then they headed to the southwestern corner of the cemetery to commence work.

Each student (and Krom) stood before a monument and prayed again, incorporating into their prayers the name of the person whose monument they were about to work on. While caring for the deceased, Krom said, they referred to Benedict’s Rule, to “keep death daily before our eyes,” thus living each day as if it were the last, and by their actions conveyed gratitude “to those who made possible our being here,” the monks of Saint Vincent past. Those buried here, he added, “lived lives of prayer and work, ora et labora, so that we could be here at Saint Vincent giving thanks.”

That correlation was an essential part of the project.

After prayer, they began the process of stripping off the rust from their particular cross, working with wire brushes, taping off the borders of the area being re-painted, and applying two coats of black paint. They started with six burials at the top and continued to the north, monument by monument. Working two times a year, once in spring and once in fall, they have cleaned and repainted approximately 60 of the crosses, slightly under 10 percent.

During one of those early project days the group encountered an enthusaistic pair of brothers, Dr. Gene Leonard and Larry Leonard, who were visiting the cemetery and who quickly became involved. Gene, of Marguerite, was an elementary classroom teacher at Greater Latrobe, as well as an elementary school principal, and also was director of elementary education for the school district. Presently he serves on the Saint Vincent Seminary Board of Regents. Larry, of Greensburg, is an alumnus of the College. Many of the photos above are from a spring 2023 cleaning organized by the Leonards.

That fulfilled yet another part of the goal—community, Krom said. The project brought together present-day members of the cemetery staff, the BLS students, Krom, alumni and neighbors in the form of the Leonards. Through the cycle of the school years, more students will join. Each spring and fall, more monuments and plaques will be restored. With a prayer and a gentle touch, long-forgotten names will come to light. More plaques will glow as they are touched by the rays of the rising sun. Now those are ties that bind.

—Kim Metzgar