On a blustery December morning, Carol O’Neil and several family members met at Resurrection Cemetery in south St. Louis County to remember the one-year anniversary of her father’s death.
Thomas Rehagen, a U.S. Navy veteran who served in the Korean War, died Dec. 21, 2021, and was buried from St. Simon Church in south St. Louis County. In the past, O’Neil and her family routinely placed wreaths on the graves of loved ones near Christmas. She recently saw a sign posted at Resurrection promoting a Wreaths Across America ceremony to be held there and knew it would be a fitting way to remember and pray for her father.
“Dad served on a destroyer, which they called Tin Can Sailors,” said O’Neil, a member of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne Parish in Florissant. “He was sent out, and the war ended when he was halfway around the world. He was the best dad. He was a tool and die maker and loved woodworking. He made beautiful furniture for our living room. I liked working with him.”
Thousands of veterans in the St. Louis area were remembered Dec. 17 as volunteers came together to place wreaths on their graves as part of the National Wreaths Across America Day. St. Louis Print Group sponsored a ceremony at Resurrection Cemetery for the first time as part of the national effort, which has a mission to remember, honor and teach. The ceremony included a wreath escort, color guard and firing team led by AMVETS Riders, and a presentation of wreaths by military members and military families.
Volunteers organized through St. Louis Print Group placed more than 450 wreaths at six cemeteries (including Resurrection and Calvary cemeteries, both part of the Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of St. Louis) across the St. Louis area that weekend. The National Wreaths Across America Day features wreath-laying events at Arlington National Cemetery and more than 3,400 other sites across the United States and beyond. A large ceremony also took place at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in south St. Louis County.
Beth Bruening, who helped organize the ceremony at Resurrection, has participated with family in Wreaths Across America the past several years. Her uncle, Tom Gragnani, served with the U.S. Army and died in Vietnam in 1966. Her son, Kyle, is a U.S. Army veteran.
“It’s just so important to me that we honor these veterans,” said Bruening, who attends St. Elizabeth/St. Robert Parish in St. Charles. “This is my spiritual thing — to honor these veterans who gave their lives, so that we can practice our religion how we believe we should practice it. Or our kids can go to school where we want them to go to school. We can live in a country where we can make our own choices.”
Carol O’Neil and her cousin Mary McManemin also stopped at McManemin’s father’s grave to place a wreath and together prayed an Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be. Marvin Kamper, who served with the U.S. Army between the Korean and Vietnam wars and was stationed in Germany, died in 2017.
“He was a flag man — he would put flags out by the mailboxes in the neighborhood for the various holidays,” recalled McManemin, who is a sign language interpreter at Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in St. Louis. “When he wasn’t physically able to do it anymore, we had our Girl Scout troop come out and do it.”
Praying for the dead is one of the spiritual Works of Mercy and a powerful way to entrust others to God’s care. Deacon Matthew Witte of Ste. Genevieve du Bois Parish in Warson Woods, who led a wreath-blessing at the ceremony, posed the question: How do you come to a cemetery and not pray?
“If you’re visiting someone — whether or not they’re a veteran or a family member who didn’t serve — what do you do? Don’t you come with a prayer?” Maybe that prayer comes through a conversation with the person who is gone, or maybe it’s a dual conversation with God, he added.
The day had special meaning for Deacon Witte and his wife, Gina, whose son-in-law is an active duty U.S. Air Force pilot stationed at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. He added that it’s important to remember that people of all faith backgrounds serve our nation.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re Christian or Jewish or Muslim or nondenominational,” Deacon Witte said. “They were called to give of themselves for the benefit of other generations. It’s cool for the first time ever they’ve done this particular giving back in a Catholic cemetery.”
>> Wreaths Across America
To learn more about participating in Wreaths Across America next December, contact Beth Bruening with St. Louis Print Group at (636) 875-4914 or Laura Torrez at (314) 795-9944.
To learn more about the National Wreaths Across America Day, visit www.wreathsacrossamerica.org.
>> Praying for the living and the dead: a spiritual work of mercy
Prayer is one of the most powerful ways we can support others. Joining together in prayer for the living and the dead entrusts us all into God’s care.
• Request a Mass intention for a friend or family member who is going through a tough time.
• Request a Mass intention for a friend or family member who has passed away.
• Keep your own book of prayer intentions, writing down the names of those who you are keeping in your prayers.
• Ask a friend or family member if there is anything you can pray for them about.
• Through prayer, entrust your cares and concerns for those around you to God.
Source: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
>> Catholic Cemeteries
With 17 locations throughout the St. Louis area, Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of St. Louis through its ministry fulfills the Gospel call to bury the dead, serving as the bridge to the communion of saints.
To learn more about Catholic Cemeteries, visit awaittheblessedhope.org.