‘God’s Hands’ reach from Tinley, Ill. to cemetery here

Sid Hastings

Seth Huisenga swung a sickle to slash overgrown weeds, some of them twice his height.

He made good progress with the simple tool, clearing an overgrown area of Greenwood Cemetery in the north St. Louis County suburb of Hillsdale. He discovered a headstone of a 1 1/2 year-old child who died Sept. 16, 1976. "At least it's uncovered now," Huisenga said.

Huisenga was among a dozen parishioners from St. Julie Billiart Parish in Tinley Park, Ill. who made on a teen-group mission trip Labor Day weekend to clean up the historic cemetery. It's a follow-up trip to one they made earlier this summer to work at the cemetery, Our Lady of the Holy Cross Parish and the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Food Pantry. They cleared some of the land at the cemetery, a small portion of the estimated 70 percent of the 30-plus acres still overgrown.

Founded in 1874, Greenwood was the first commercial non-sectarian cemetery for African-Americans in the St. Louis area and the burial ground for notables such as Harriet Robinson Scott, wife of Dred Scott, and blues musician Milton Sparks. About 50,000 people are buried there; the last burials took place in the 1990s. The cemetery was neglected and became overgrown with brush. Raphael Morris, president of the Greenwood Cemetery Association, and his wife, Shelley, became involved in the cleanup efforts after seeing a TV news report about the cemetery's condition.

Huisenga, a junior at Victor J. Andrew High School in Tinley Park, a suburb of Chicago, said he enjoys being a part of the teen group and doing "God's work" with his friends.

Alia Machlet, a freshman at Geneva High School in Geneva, Ill., who pushed a lawnmower, said the teens showed respect for the dead by cleaning up the gravestones. "It's hard work but definitely worth it," she said.

Tom Mittler, a freshman physical therapy student at St. Louis University from St. Julie Parish, and Jack Ruane, also a SLU freshman from the parish in Tinley Park, met up with their friends, making the 20-minute drive from their campus. They stacked cut brush on a tarp and carried it to the road. Ruane, a public health major, said he's taken by the history and significance of the cemetery. Mittler was sad to see the neglect of the cemetery but pleased to see the progress of the clean-up.

Tom O'Donnell of St. Julie Parish helped organize the trip and reached out to others in the St. Louis area to join in the effort. He arranged for housing at St. Peter Parish in Kirkwood and obtained mowers, weed whackers and other equipment. "We should be honoring these final resting spots," O'Donnell said. "Churches need to band together to clear the land."

Morris said anyone is welcome to help. "Lord knows, we need all the hands we can get," he said. "Normally there's just four or five of us."

The teens who help show a keen interest in the history of the place and "never disappoint," Morris said. "I'm totally in awe of their work ethic."

Kristyn Granahan, 23, one of the adult leaders, climbed up an overgrown hill and worked with a large clippers to clear the land. Supporting the Morris couple's passion and being part of an effort to allow people to visit their relatives' graves motivated Granahan. Of the teen group, she said: "We're God's hands where they're needed." 

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Greenwood Cemetery was organized to serve the needs of the growing black population of post-civil war St. Louis and St. Louis County. It was the first commercial non-sectarian cemetery for African-Americans in the St. Louis metropolitan area. More than 50,000 Africans-Americans are buried within Greenwood's 31.85 acres. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.

Several Catholic groups have helped in the clean-up of the once-neglected grounds, including more than 200 De Smet Jesuit High School and St. Louis University High School dads and sons who joined forces to help and raise funds. Also last year for Project Life, a weeklong service retreat, a small group of teens worked at the cemetery, whacking and raking weeds along a back section of the cemetery that was active from 1874 to 1993.

Greenwood Cemetery Association is always in need of volunteers. Visit www.greenwoodstl.org or contact Raphael Morris at raphael.morris@greenwoodstl.org or (314) 772-7466. 

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