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

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: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”