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Families appalled at state of Loretto Cemetery in Arlington Heights

Wednesday, August 15, 2001

By Larry Ciptak

Talak, Busco, Tomczak and Kimpinski are some names of generations of South Siders who fought the great wars of the 20th century, forged steel that built this country and rest in Loretto Cemetery in Arlington Heights.

But many graves of these mainly Slavic Pittsburghers stand not as monuments to patriotism and tenacity but to decades of abandonment that has left the necropolis disheveled and buried in deep, thick vegetation.

"I'm devastated. I can't believe something so sacred could possibly be so neglected," said James Cox of Melbourne, Fla., who was at the cemetery with his wife, Ann, searching for the graves of his grandparents John and Bridget Garvey, who died in 1944 and 1945.

Armed with a map provided by the Diocese of Pittsburgh, they set out to locate their burial place but abandoned the quest after a fruitless hour of pushing aside weeds and underbrush.

"To allow this to happen is beyond belief. This is very depressing. If they can afford to build these cathedral-type buildings, they can afford to take care of our loved ones in a dignified manner," he said.

The map was inaccurate, some sections were marked incorrectly and apparent vandalism has left the cemetery without many grave markers, especially in the older section, he said.

Thick undergrowth, fallen trees, bushes and debris conceal much of it. Numerous stones are turned over, broken and covered with soil and foliage. Many graves have fallen victim to subsidence. Some memorials in an area so overgrown that it could now be considered woods are covered with piles of branches and other compost. And not all of the affected graves are old; many date to the late 1950s.

John Janitor, whose son, parents and other relatives are buried in Loretto, said it "has been let go" during the past 40 years.

"They should be ashamed of themselves," his wife, Jenny, said. "It's deplorable. These are the people who gave more to the church than they gave to themselves. ... There are two plots for my husband and I, but we bought plots elsewhere, because we don't want to be buried in there."

Loretto Cemetery was affiliated with St. Peter Parish, South Side, which was founded in 1871, bought its first cemetery on Arlington Avenue -- St. Peter's in 1881 -- and added a new section in 1882. When St. Peter's Cemetery filled up, 25 acres purchased on Devlin Street in Arlington Heights in 1912 became Loretto Cemetery.

St. Peter's and Loretto Cemetery became part of Prince of Peace Parish along with St. Michael, St. Adalbert, St. Josaphat and St. Casimir as a result of church consolidation in 1992.

Until then, each cemetery had its own caretaker, said Mark Zietak, cemetery manager for Prince of Peace. The caretakers were replaced by a crew of five who work on all of Prince of Peace's cemeteries.

Loretto Cemetery is three-quarters full and receives 30 to 50 burials a year, Zietak said. But Loretto Cemetery, owned by the diocese and run by the parish, had problems long before the consolidation.

Zietak and his crew have embarked on a three- to four-year program to clear and renovate Section K.

But it won't be easy, cheap or quick. "It took over 40 years to get like this," he said. "We can't come in with a dozer and level it off, because we have remains here."

Another dilemma is illegal dumping, Zietak said, pointing to roofing shingles apparently dumped by a contractor. "Anyone who doesn't want to pay to dump, dumps here. Before we put the gate up [in the front], they used to dump here every weekend. They have no respect. Their attitude is, 'I don't have anyone buried here.'"

He said the city prosecuted a contractor caught dumping at Loretto in 1998.

Adding to problems was the June 3, 1998, tornado that ripped across Mount Washington, knocked over and damaged 80 tombstones and left behind numerous felled trees at Loretto, prohibiting people from getting in the gate.

Zietak said those trees were later cut and used to build a 3-foot-high wall 30 feet back in the woods in Section K that marks the end of the cemetery. His crews eventually will clear the area back to the log wall, he said.

"The people who come here all the time see progress. If people are patient, they will see that we will get it back to where it was 40 years ago, but it's going to take time."

Larry Ciptak is a free-lance writer.

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