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The healing begins

IONA -- Seven weeks after the discovery of desecrated tombstones and statues at St. Columba Catholic Cemetery in rural Iona, some of the granite has been mended, and the wounds felt by church parishioners have begun to heal.

While charges have not yet been filed against those responsible for knocking over 13 tombstones, breaking a sandstone angel statue and pushing a large granite cross to the ground, the Rev. Patrick Arens of St. Columba's parish is optimistic the vandals will be caught.

"We've been praying for those who were involved with the damage and praying that they will have a conversion of heart, repent and make reparation," he said Thursday afternoon.

At the same time, parishioners are offering prayers of thanksgiving for the outpouring of support since news of the cemetery's vandalism appeared on the front page of the Daily Globe in late October.

"The community response has been wonderful," said Arens, adding that enough money was donated to help upright the stones that had been knocked over and repair the Wermerskirchen family memorial. The memorial was by far the most labor-intensive fix. Considered to be destroyed early on by parishioners, the granite cross and sandstone angel were recently repaired by Memory Gardens of Worthington.

"We saw the article in the Globe, and Vince Crowley was quoted in there," said Memory Gardens' co-owner Gary Ewert. Ewert talked with his business partner, Bertha Houtsma, and they offered their services to repair the statues at a greatly-reduced rate.

"They were hit hard up there, so we thought we could help them," Ewert said. One of Memory Gardens' suppliers from the St. Cloud area met with Ewert and Arens at the cemetery to see what could be done.

"The cross and the angel (from the Wermerskirchen memorial) could not be replaced," Houtsma said. "The angel came from Italy, and the granite used for the cross wasn't even available anymore."

Replacing the granite cross with a different type of granite would have cost a minimum of $17,000, she added. Since monuments are considered personal property, the church's insurance policy would not cover replacement, or even its repair.

Without the option of replacing the memorial, they began the task of repairing the damage. Memory Gardens reassembled the base of the granite cross and created a wooden form to hold the pieces in place as an epoxy hardened everything together. Because of the cold temperatures, a 20- by 20-foot tarp was placed over the monument to create a tent while generators were used to heat the enclosed area at 70 degrees for more than two days, Ewert said.

"After we got up enough nerve, we pulled the jig off to make sure (the epoxy) set," he added. The repair worked, and the cross once again stands as a beacon in the rural cemetery. As for the angel, the work proved a little more difficult. When the cross fell, it landed on the angel's hand and wrist, shattering it into more than 30 small pieces. Ewert said they were able to get most of the pieces epoxied and in place to the point that it looks like a hand again.

"There are finer detailed things that could be touched up," Ewert added.

Memory Gardens estimated replacement and/or repair costs for the Wermerskirchen memorial and eight other monuments that were damaged at nearly $54,000. With the exception of the angel and cross, most of the monuments suffered chips in the granite or minor damage to the tablets.

Since granite chips cannot be repaired, Houtsma and Ewert said it will be up to the families whose stones were damaged to decide whether to do anything with the monuments.

Arens said he's pleased with the repair work that was able to be done.

"I think (Memorial Gardens) did a really good job -- probably as good as could be done with the statues being so damaged," Arens said. Nearly the entire cost of the repairs made to the damaged monuments was paid for through donations made not only from St. Columba parishioners, but also from people throughout the region.

"We've had donations from people I've never heard of," said Sylvan Gaul, of the St. Columba Cemetery Association, adding that there were donations from as far away as the Twin Cities.

Julie Buntjer
Julie Buntjer joined the Daily Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington and graduate of Worthington High School, then-Worthington Community College and South Dakota State University, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. At the Daily Globe, Julie covers the agricultural beat, as well as Nobles County government, watersheds, community news and feature stories. In her spare time, she enjoys needlework (cross-stitch and hardanger embroidery), reading, travel, fishing and spending time with family. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at
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