Saint John’s Abbey Cemetery:  A Sense of Place

A sense of place is something we create within ourselves. It establishes an emotional and personal bond with a locality or setting. Often it has been used to describe the feeling one experiences when visiting Saint John’s, whether one is in the abbey church, the cloister, the university library, or the cemetery. The sense of place is unique for each individual, but it is almost always based on a feeling of peace and closeness to God that inspires contemplation. By design, the abbey cemetery is no exception.

Like most of the abbey’s man-made spaces, the cemetery is quite different from the first burial site used by the Benedictines in the Indianbush in 1869—a plot of thirty square feet or so located just to the south of what is now Simons Hall on the campus of Saint John’s University.


Here Demetrius di Marogna, O.S.B., the first prior of Saint John’s (†27 March 1869), was buried, as was Placidus Brixius, O.S.B., a carpenter who helped build the first convent for the Benedictine Sisters at St. Joseph (†28 June 1871), and Othmar Maria Wirtz, O.S.B., the prior who oversaw the move of the community from St. Cloud to Collegeville (†8 June 1874). Three students of Saint John’s College and Seminary—Max Schmoeger (†1 January 1870), Martin McIntire (†4 March 1871), and John Bonne (†7 April 1872)—were also buried here.

The second abbot of Saint John’s—the forward-looking Alexius Edelbrock, O.S.B.—recognized that a cemetery in this location would stand in the way of an expanding monastery. So, in 1875, he asked Father Wolfgang Northman, O.S.B., to draw up plans for a new cemetery to be located on the eastern slope of a hill lying a quarter mile south of the monastery overlooking Lake Sagatagan. In the winter of 1875–76, the hill was cleared of timber and a cemetery laid out for members of the community. Nearby, a cemetery was laid out for members of the local parish of Saint John the Baptist. Ironically, Father Wolfgang died on 8 February 1876, at the age of 33, and was the first person to be interred in the new cemetery on 10 February 1876. 

On 12 September 1876, a large white cross was raised on the hill and on 2 November, the bodies of the monks and students buried in the original cemetery were reinterred in the new cemetery. On 9 November, the bodies of two monks buried in the Saint Joseph parish cemetery were also moved to the new cemetery: Benno Muckenthaler, O.S.B. (†27 March 1859) and novice Gall Kederly, O.S.B. (†5 November 1864).

In those early years, an open surrey transported the coffins of deceased monks from the abbey church to the cemetery. The surrey was replaced in 1932 by a horse-drawn hearse—complete with side-lanterns and heavy black curtains—donated by the Wenner Funeral Home of Cold Spring. This carriage, pulled by two horses, transported the remains of over 70 monks to the cemetery during the following 21 years. It was retired in 1953 after the funeral of Father
Innocent Gertken, O.S.B. (†17 July 1953).

Landscaping of the abbey cemetery has been enhanced through the years. In 1915, a cement-block wall was built along the front of the cemetery and a large wrought-iron double gate installed at the entrance. Two sculptured metal angels with trumpets flanked the gate. Later, land near the cemetery was cleared and arborvitae hedges planted. In 1932, the cemetery was made more formal when it was seeded with grass and rows of spruce trees were planted along the main driveway. This driveway was further enhanced in 1989 when Brother Benedict Leuthner, O.S.B., oversaw the planting of 53 poplar trees among the spruce trees.

In 1952, Abbot Baldwin Dworschak, O.S.B., decided to renovate the cemetery as a way to “honor the first abbots and pioneer monks.” The crumbling limestone grave markers were gradually replaced with newly designed markers made from Cold Spring granite and, on 9 September 1953, a new granite monument designed by Frank Kacmarcik, Obl.S.B. (†22 February 2004), was installed over the grave of Abbot Alcuin Deutsch, O.S.B. (†12 May 1951).

On June 18, 1964, graves of the five deceased abbots were moved to new vaults at the west end of the cemetery near this monument. Coordinated by Brother John Anderl, O.S.B. (†1 January 2003), and with the help of 12 novices under the direction of Father Roger Klassen, O.S.B., this project gave the cemetery a beauty and serenity that encourages contemplation of the contributions made to the abbey by past abbots and monks. A turnabout at the end of the driveway, with granite walls designed by Father Cloud Meinberg, O.S.B. (†7 July 1982), was added at this time as well.

Vatican Council II brought further changes. The original layout of the cemetery contained separate sections for graves of brothers and priests. After Vatican Council II, this practice was discontinued and the monks are now buried in the order in which they died. Brother Kevin Brush, O.S.B. (†13 March 1967), was the first monk to be buried in the section formerly reserved for priests.

In 2004, the monastic community decided to add a section for alumni, oblates, employees, and friends of the abbey, university, and prep school. Cemetery design and landscape architect, Jack C. Goodnoe, drew up plans for the space located between the abbey cemetery and the abbey’s apple orchard. The plan complemented the natural woodland and lake setting, while integrating modern features with the existing monastic cemetery. It included cremation burial options, both traditional ground lots and two cremation interment walls (columbaria).

The plans were implemented by Minneapolis-based landscape designers, Oslund and Associates, who advised on the scale of the columbaria, benches, sidewalks, and monument designs, as well as on the variety of trees, shrubs, and flowers. The addition was completed in the spring of 2008 when the granite columbaria wall niches were installed and landscaping was completed. Also at this time, a cemetery office for the new alumni and friends section was established and combined with the parish and monastic cemetery office.

On 6 June 2008, Abbot John Klassen, O.S.B., presided at the dedication and blessing of the cemetery. This followed the first burial, which had occurred in October 2007 when the infant grandson of a Saint John’s alumnus was interred.

The addition of columbaria reflected the growing popularity of cremation among Catholics. Abbot Timothy Kelly, O.S.B., the ninth abbot of Saint John’s (†7 October 2010), was the first member of the monastic community to be cremated and inurned in the abbey cemetery on
17 October 2010.

Though the abbey cemetery has changed much in the 144 years of its existence, its sense of place remains. The simple, monastic nature of the site is retained in the strong, modern interpretation of cemetery design while focusing on the surrounding natural beauty. Saint John’s monks and Saint John’s visitors can stroll past individual headstones or columbarium wall niches and pray for those who have died, sit on a bench in meditation, or just enjoy the sense of place and peace.

Written by Steven Pederson, Obl.S.B., July, 2013.

(320) 363-3434 | info@saintjohnsabbeycemetery.org