St. Thomas Parish renews their place of rest
Father Mariusz and St. Thomas cemetery committee members pose for a photo following the blessing of the newly installed statues and benches. From left to right: Joey Haines, Fr. Mariusz, Mike Kopf (our Sexton), Annemarie Lander, Gary Johnson, Melanie Simpson, Williene Gagnon. (Photo courtesy of Tina Johnson)
By Maggie Scott
for the Idaho Catholic Register
COEUR D’ALENE – Walking through old cemeteries has long been a hobby of Tina Johnson, a parishioner at Saint Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Coeur D’Alene. Her phone is filled with photos of cemeteries she has visited during her travels. Friends send her photos, too.
One photo a friend shared with her from a cemetery in Ohio struck Johnson as the perfect addition to the newly refurbished Saint Thomas Cemetery sign. Replicated by Memorial Monuments, the life-size statue is of the risen Jesus sitting up in the tomb – the unwitnessed moment of his resurrection. While this image of Jesus isn’t as widely known, it gives hope to mourners as they enter the more than century-old cemetery.
Saint Thomas Catholic Cemetery has provided a final resting place for the dearly departed since its founding in 1890. The three-acre grounds hold the remains of more than 3,100 souls, mostly Catholics from Saint Thomas the Apostle and Saint Pius X Catholic churches in Coeur D’Alene, as well as Saint Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Post Falls.
“For any Catholic parish to have a Catholic cemetery is a tremendous blessing,” said Father Mariusz Majewski, pastor of Saint Thomas parish. “Saint Thomas from its inception has cared for and ministered to the families of the deceased parishioners by providing them with a beautiful and peaceful resting place.”
While the beauty and peace of the cemetery have always been evident, time does take its toll.
“This is a really tired-looking cemetery,” Johnson thought while on one of her walks in 2020. The signs were worn and degraded and the few statues and benches were damaged. She approached Father John Mosier, then pastor of Saint Thomas, about the much-needed improvements. Father John tasked Johnson with leading the charge.
The cemetery had not seen major improvements for 130 years. Parishioners and volunteers from Saint Thomas agreed it was time to renew it.
During the past four years, the parish has raised nearly $300,000 for the renovation–some of the money through fundraising efforts and some by raising the price of plots to match the rates of local public cemeteries.
To identify and prioritize improvements, the eight-member volunteer committee walked through the cemetery together on July 1, 2020, a safe way to gather when the world was taking precautions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to Johnson, committee members include Dennis Cada, Williene Gagnon, Joey Haines, Gary Johnson, Mike Kopf, Annemarie Lander, and Melanie Simpson.
Replacing the chain link fence with a black steel fence was one of the first and most aesthetically impactful upgrades. “It looks like it surrounds something important now instead of a ball field,” said Johnson.
Another improvement that conveys the worthiness of the place was resurfacing the torn, stained stucco face of the original Saint Thomas Cemetery sign with granite, and placing upon the sign the aforementioned statue of the resurrected Jesus.
Renovating the grotto shrine, which was originally added to the cemetery in 1991, was another priority of the committee. A new granite altar top, original artwork, granite seating cubes and a chandelier were added in 2021.
In early 2022 a records search showed that an unused, city-maintained, 1/3 acre patch of land, which butted against the northeast corner of the cemetery, was the property of the Diocese of Boise. The findings have allowed the cemetery to add nearly 200 plots. They have also added niches for cremains.
Other upgrades include the installation of 10 new granite benches and six additional granite statues. Three of the statues, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Immaculate Heart of Mary and Saint Michael the Archangel, were installed this summer and were blessed by Father Majewski in August.
An investment was also made in grounds keeping, including an updated sprinkler system and the purchase of new lawn equipment. Wayfinding signs have been installed with maps and QR codes for easier navigation.
Renewal efforts started as a way to honor the dead buried at the historic cemetery, but the beautification has had an unanticipated effect – an increased demand. More people want Saint Thomas to be their final resting place.
“The cemetery is part of our parish – so many members of our community are buried there, those who built, cared for, attended, and supported not only St. Thomas but also the larger community of Couer d’Alene,” said Father Majewski.
As Johnson takes walks through the cemetery these days, it feels like a different place. “I feel so proud to have been a part of it,” she said.
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