Laying Members to Rest is an Act of Mercy
The headstones in the cemetery at St. Charles Center are laid out neatly in rows, north to south, east to west, southwest to northeast—any way you want to look at them. They don’t fall that way from the sky. The earth curves, soil heaves, and rows have to be made straight and kept straight. Who does that? For the most part, it’s Br. Nick Renner, C.PP.S.
For decades, Br. Nick has dug the graves in the Community cemetery. He also helped plot the rows and poured footers for the headstones so that they don’t shift or sink. It’s more than just labor. It’s a ministry he performs for those who are gone, yet are somehow still with us.
When St. Charles was a seminary, its students dug the graves by hand. But when the seminary closed in 1969, Br. Nick, who lived at St. Charles at that time and worked on
the farm there, took on the chore and has kept it ever since, partly as a help to the Community, and partly as spiritual exercise.
He got help right away, in the form of a broken-down backhoe that he found at Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind. He was visiting the college when he saw the backhoe, weeds growing up all around it. The farm manager told him that it didn’t work. “I’ll give you $200 for it,” said Br. Nick. The farm manager asked for $225, and a deal was struck. When Br. Nick got it back to
St. Charles, he bought $3 worth of new o-rings and valves, “and it worked,” he said. “I’m still using it.”
As he walks through the cemetery he points out headstones, telling stories of all the priests and brothers that he knew, Community members whom he helped lay to rest. At first, he said, there were many that he didn’t know well. As the years have gone by—Br. Nick has been a brother for 52 years—he knows more and more. Knows them well.
He remembers the stories of their graves as well. “Fr. Herbert Linenberger, that was during the blizzard of ’78,” he said, pointing to one headstone. “I mainly remember the ones that gave me trouble when I was digging: Bishop Marling, Br. Oliver Weaver,
Fr. Ray Guillozet—he was such a meek, gentle guy, but his gravesite gave me the hardest time.”
While he works, he reflects and prays about the member who has just died. “Once, a mother of 15 told me that the only time she had with an individual child was when the baby would wake up at night. That was their special time together,” he said. “That really struck me. And so I’ve adopted that. When I’m preparing the grave, that’s my time to spend with that person, to reflect on their lives and our relationship, if I knew them well.
“I think about their lives, what made them stick with their calling through all the struggles. It’s a spiritual journey.”
Br. Nick is a farmer at heart, and while others might shrink from the work in the cemetery, he is accustomed to the earth’s cycle of life and death. “We’re just carbon when we’re dead. Just carbon,” he said. “The spirit is gone. There was a whole lifetime of energy that they spent on so many things.”
The spirit is gone, and yet remains. That’s the mystery that lives within us, he said. Burying his good friend Br. Jude Brown, C.PP.S., who died earlier this year, was a mystical experience. “I knew him for 50 years. He and I laid this whole cemetery out, and we put in a lot of the sidewalks,” he said. “It’s okay that he’s gone, but I know so much about how he thought, it’s like he’s still with me.”
It was similar with Fr. Rich Riedel, C.PP.S., who died in October. “I spent quite a bit of time with Rich before he died. He was very good to me when we were in ministry together at Immaculate Conception parish in Celina. I needed him at that time, and he was there for me. And we kept that friendship up,” he said.
While sad, he understands that Fr. Riedel stepped into a new life of joy, leaving his earthly body behind. Br. Nick took care of it.
“As you get older, you start to see life and death differently. You see that it’s all okay,” he said. “You can’t stop that aging process, my dad used to say. There’s nothing you can do to stop it.”