Catholics help clean up vandalized historic Jewish cemetery

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org

Represented by seminarians, priests, deacons, students and laity, Catholic St. Louisans stood with Jewish brethren in the aftermath of vandalism at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City.

They were among about 1,000 people, including United States Vice-President Mike Pence and Missouri Governor Eric Greitans, who came to clean up days after vandals toppled more than two-dozen grave stones and damaged an estimated 200 more at the historic cemetery, which dates to 1893. Pence came unannounced from an appearance at Fabick Cat Headquarters in Fenton and raked leaves in dress clothes. Greitens came ready to work in jeans, boots and work shirt.

Greitens described the vandalism as "a despicable act, ... anti-Semitic and painful. Moments like this are what a community is about. ... We're going to demonstrate that this is a moment of revolve. We're coming together to share service."

Pence commended Missourians for "inspiring the nation by your show of love and care for the Jewish community. ... (You're) showing the world what America is all about."

Seminarians were among those who answered Archbishop Robert J. Carlson's call Feb. 21 "to help our Jewish brothers and sisters." About a dozen used their afternoon free time to help out.

"This is neat to see," said seminarian Cole Bestgen, watching the workers fan out on a sunny and unseasonably warm 67-degree day armed with rakes, trash barrels and buckets. Though toppled headstones already had been replaced, the volunteers took care of general clean-up and maintenance.

The desecration sparked outrage from numerous ecumenical groups — Jewish, Catholic, Christian, Muslims and more — and dignitaries across the country, including President Donald J. Trump who sent messages of thanks through Pence and Greitens.

Jason Purnell of the archdiocese's Peace and Justice Commission, Gina and Deacon Matt Witte, Javier Orozco and James Comninellis of the archdiocesan Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs and many other Catholics lent a hand.

In an email asking for the Fontbonne University community to help, Sister Linda Markway, CSJ, described the vandalism as an "act of hatred against our neighbors," but wrote "the faithful response to hatred is love, and the Fontbonne response to need is service."

It concluded with an interfaith prayer vigil. 

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