In Prince George cemetery,
a celebration of life

Luminaries marked each of the 288 graves in Sacred Heart’s cemetery during a special event honoring the early families and other deceased parishioners. Members of Boy Scout Troops 902 and 2837 placed each of the luminaries for the Saturday, Nov. 7, commemoration. (Photo/John Messina)

Sacred Heart parishioners honor those who served faith community


A Saturday, Nov. 7, graveside luminary event at Sacred Heart Parish, Prince George, “breathed life into the cemetery headstones.”

Such was parishioner Jeff Stoke’s impression of the event.

While graveyards can be scary and somber places, Sacred Heart Cemetery was a place of quiet celebration with luminaries marking the 288 graves. Seven parishioners shared stories of people interred. Attendees sipped cider and cocoa as the Celtic band Clan Haggis played in the background.

Father Joe Goldsmith, administrator of the cluster parishes including Sacred Heart, Prince George; St. John, Dinwiddie; and St. James, Hopewell, said funerals are often “dark and heavy and sad,” but this event was a celebration, a remembrance, of lives.

The 60-some attendees walked from the church steps under the night sky, through a dark church to a softly lit room containing photos of deceased parishioners and finally outside to the illuminated cemetery. Boy Scout Troops 902 and 2837 had laid out the luminaries during the vigil Mass.

Father Goldsmith likened the walk to a symbolic funeral path where people go from darkness to light, from death to eternal life.

Event organizer Penny Merhout said that during COVID, people have had more time to think about life and death, and this event “puts it all into perspective.”

That was true for Stoke, who said the event opened a dialogue with his 11-year-old daughter Violet and 17-year-old son Ben. Violet asked questions about her paternal grandfather who died before she was born. The event made it easier for him to talk to them about “death, the circle of life and people who died before us.”

“The event helps us remember the founders and others who were responsible for what our parish is today,” parishioner Tom Beaudet said. “It took a lot of love and hard work over the years to develop the parish family we have.”

People roamed the cemetery in reverence, soaking in the ambience and stopping at graves to listen to stories about deceased parishioners.

As part of the Saturday, Nov. 7, procession from the church at Sacred Heart, Prince George, to the parish cemetery, attendees pass through a softly-lit room displaying photos of deceased parishioners. (Photo/John Messina)

Beaudet talked about his father, Richard Beaudet.

Jeff Stoke said he was struck by Beaudet’s narrative because of the tender way he described his father. Heralding his father as his “hero,” Beaudet described him as a “gentle natured, smart, loving, caring and a wonderful role model” who loved to tell jokes, bring smiles and happiness to other people.

“He was the greatest father any kid could ever hope for,” said Beaudet, who has three brothers.

Ben Stoke, Kevin Kessler and others said they were moved by Father Goldsmith’s narrative of the parish’s first pastor, Father Jan Konicek. In 1905, the priest was sent from what is now the Czech Republic to minister to the Sacred Heart congregation in their language.

In 1911, he also ministered to families in the coal mines in Henrico County where six coalminers had died in an explosion. In 1910, he fell ill with “some sort of blood disease.” His health continued to deteriorate, and he died in 1912 at the age of 33.

Frank Pezzillo paid tribute to his friend, Deacon Bob Baker.

Sharon Jadrnak and Dawn Weber said that Pezzillo’s narration of Deacon Baker, who died a year and a half ago, touched them the most because they had volunteered alongside him for years. Deacon Baker was instrumental in setting up a Haiti ministry and tending to the poor in the local area.

Parishioners Joe Vinsh, Darla Glazier and Dennis Sebera talked about their families with the same surnames who were among the early parishioners. Deacon Ed Hanzlik’s grandson, Isaiah Langford, explained his family ties as well.

Sacred Heart Parish was established in 1906 by 29 Slovak and Czech families who began immigrating to the area in 1887. The parish has grown to more than 500 families, and many of the descendants still live in the community.

Marie Hanzlik donated 11 acres on which the church, hall and cemetery stand. The first church was blessed in 1906, and the cemetery was established within two years with its first interment in 1908.

Violet Stoke thought the event would be boring, but she had so much fun looking at the birthdates on the headstones, especially trying to find ones with her birthday, that she didn’t want to leave.

Ben Stoke liked hearing about the trials and tribulations of the parish founders.

“What they did was absolutely phenomenal — to make it all the way across the ocean and then come here and build from nothing is amazing,” he said. “I will say it certainly made me appreciate the life I have a little bit more.”

Chris Perez also found the tales of the early parishioners interesting, especially that of the Bohemian immigrants Franticek and Mary Sebera, who moved in 1890 from North Dakota to Virginia via a Conestoga wagon with the first five of their 10 children.

For some, the graveside luminary was an opportunity to rebuild the sense of community that was threatened or nonexistent due to COVID restrictions. While Masses are once again public, some feel it is still too risky health-wise to attend, and many are reluctant to go to social gatherings, especially those held indoors.

As a result, Weber said she no longer feels the sense of community, but the graveside luminary was a good step. She said the event “provided an opportunity to share faith and to celebrate our church, our families and our lives.”

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