Saints, holy figures come back to life at first ‘Night in the Cemetery’

Aaron Lambert

The week before Halloween, the dead rose from the graves at Mt. Olivet Cemetery.

It was much less frightening than a scene from Night of the Living Dead, though. Among those who appeared were St. Therese of Lisieux, Freddie Joe Steinmark and Denver’s very own angel of charity Julia Greeley, all portrayed by actors and actresses. Youth from around the archdiocese were given the chance to walk through the cemetery in the dark of night for the very first “Night in the Cemetery” event.

“If you get [kids] the week before Halloween to come and walk around a cemetery at night, they’re all ears,” said Gary Schaaf, director of Mt. Olivet. “We’re not trying to scare them, but we do understand they’ll be in a different place than when they’re playing Xbox. They’ll be thinking, they’ll be listening, their senses are heightened.”

Actors and actresses from the Regis Ramblers, Regis University’s drama club, portrayed some of the religious figures students encountered during the tour, such as St. Therese of Lisieux pictured above. (Photos by Andrew Wright)

For three nights, middle school and high school youth groups were led on a two-hour tour through Mt. Olivet, learning about some of its rich history and encountering a few saints and other special visitors portrayed in part by members of the Regis University drama club. They were also treated to an outdoor Mass at Gallagher Chapel in the heart of the cemetery.

The first character the students encountered on their tour was Julia Greeley, who was buried at Mt. Olivet for nearly 100 years until recently, when her cause for canonization as Denver’s first saint was opened. As part of the canonization process, her bones were exhumed and now lie at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.

The woman who portrayed Julia, Robin Weldon, is currently a resident at the Julia Greeley Home, a homeless shelter for women in Denver. Even before being asked to play Julia, Weldon had read about her life and felt a kindred connection to her.

The tour ended with Mass at Gallagher Chapel in the heart of the cemetery. (Photos by Andrew Wright)

“We had a lot of things in common, without even knowing anything about her,” Weldon said. “Some of the things she has done as far as giving food…I have done that, unaware of her story.”

“It wasn’t hard for me to decide to do it,” she added excitedly.

Schaaf hopes “Night in the Cemetery” becomes an annual occasion. Every kid dreams of walking around a cemetery at night, and this is a great chance to allow them to do that while revealing some of the deeper tenets of the Catholic faith.

“This place is so much in so many ways. It’s sacred ground,” he said. “So many people’s loved ones are out here. It’s where they come and go to a different and deeper place. If you can get kids to swim in a little bit deeper water for five minutes, that’s a good thing. That’s the purpose behind it all.”

COMING UP: Vietnamese parish community raises $80,000 for storm relief

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About 800 Vietnamese refugees, immigrants and their relatives gathered on Veterans Day at Queen of Vietnamese Martyrs Catholic Parish event center in Wheat Ridge, raising more than $80,000 for survivors of recent storms in Texas, Florida and central Vietnam.

“We dedicate this event to God, and to Mary,” said co-organizer Viet Hua. “We’ve been praying and asking for help, in God’s way, to glorify him in our effort to help those who suffer.”

It was an evening of food, music, dance and auction goods that sold for thousands more than market value in the spirit of exceeding an ambitious $75,000, one-night fundraising goal. Half the money will go to Gulf Coast recovery, and half will go to Vietnam.

Hua, a member of the parish’s Knights of Columbus chapter, said at least 100 men, women and children volunteered to organize and operate the event.

Denver-area businesses with Catholic and Vietnamese owners, managers and employees minimized overhead with donations of food, beverages, services and auction items.

It touches my heart now to help others – from a place where I can exercise my faith, where I can succeed, and where I can gather with community.”

“This is faith, fellowship and compassion at its finest hour,” said Sang Truong, marketing director of Denver’s Beverage World Specialties, which donated cases of Chilean Paso del Sol wine.

Two major hurricanes wreaked havoc along the Gulf of Mexico this year. As of Veterans Day, 12 tropical storms and typhoons had devastated parts of Vietnam.

Typhoon Damrey struck central Vietnam November 4, destroying nearly 3,500 homes, flooding 138,000 homes, killing 123 people and leaving 395,000 Vietnamese in need of assistance.

The scene is painfully familiar to most who head the 1,800 families that comprise Queen of Vietnamese Martyrs. They endured killer typhoons in the 1960s and ’70s, as communists invaded.

“Communists took over in 1975, and these people came here because they love freedom and they want to practice their faith,” said Pastor Louis Ha Pham, who escaped Vietnam in 1975 with 350 other members of the Congregation of the Mother Co-redemptrix religious community. “They want to use their freedom and faith to help others who suffer and lack the advantages of everything we have here.”

Co-organizer Hua barely survived a typhoon that slammed into his South Vietnamese village when he was a young child in the 1960s.

As water filled the family’s bamboo hut, Hua escaped with his mother and siblings to a neighboring residence. Water soon rushed into that hut, forcing Hua and other occupants to punch through the roof.

“We’re yelling for our lives in the middle of the night,” Hua recalled.

South Vietnamese soldiers pulled them from the water and onto a boat, but the suffering had only begun when Hua and his family reached dry ground in the mountains.

“You have no clothes, no food, and no fresh water. You have nothing,” Hua said. “So it touches my heart now to help others – from a place where I can exercise my faith, where I can succeed, and where I can gather with community.”

Hua escaped Vietnam by himself as a sophomore in high school in 1975. Communists had killed his father. They had threatened him and his family with machine guns.

“I remember they had us lined up, and my grandfather stood there telling them to shoot him,” Hua said. “He lifted up his dirty white t-shirt and said ‘shoot me. Just do it.’ I’m glad they didn’t, because that would have really messed me up as a child.”

Hua built his American life around Our Lady of Vietnamese Martyrs, thanking God each day for liberties the communists took from his homeland.

“I thank God, and I thank Americans for the opportunity to be here with resources to help people back home,” Hua said. “We thank you Americans so much for helping the Vietnamese to migrate here and live free.”

Que Truong, lead organizer of the event, said all Hurricane recovery is hard. It is worse in a dictatorship.

Items were auctioned off as part of a fundraiser held at Queen of Vietnamese Martyrs Parish on Veteran’s Day to help raise money to provide aid to Vietnam, Florida and Texas, which were all recently hit by storms. In total, the parish raised over $80,000 in one evening. (Photos by Dede Laugesen)

“It is terrible over there,” Truong said. “In south Vietnam, we are not free to do anything. There, most people are poor. It’s a different story here, so we are very eager to help.”

Joining the Catholic parishioners were Vietnamese dancers and others from Denver’s Nhu Lia Buddhist Temple. Vietnamese from a Baptist church also participated.

“This is the first time we have all sat down and had dinner together,” said parish Vice President Hung Vu. “Refugees of any religion know how it is to have nothing – to have empty hands and empty stomachs.”

Vu’s father starved to death after a typhoon devastated the family’s village in 1978. Communists ruled the family’s church. Everyone in Vu’s life suffered deprivation of basic needs.

At age 8, Vu fled while working on a fishing boat.

“The boat next to ours planned to escape,” Vu recounted. “They waved me over. In an instant, without a moment to think about it, I jumped out and swam to their boat. They pulled me up and we started sailing out of the China Sea.”

The narrow, 35-foot vessel contained 97 “boat people” crammed together in fetal position. They quickly ran out of food and water, finally obtaining supplies from a passing ship.

“We wanted freedom of religion, and opportunity, and were willing to die trying to get it,” Vu said. “We have suffered. Now, we are so blessed to be here in the United States with all we have. We are so thankful for the veterans who have defended this way of life. This church is my family, and this family is blessed to help those trying to recover in Texas, Florida and Vietnam.”