Steve Carlson saw disaster looming, each time he wrote a check to pay a lawn care service for mowing the St. Mary’s Cemetery. As the financial officer for the cemetery account, Carlson paid the bills for the small parish burial area, located a mile north of Bryant, S.D. “It was obvious that we only had about five years – or less than that – of money to operate,” Carlson said. “We were going to run out of money.” Money for the care of the cemetery was coming primarily from funeral memorials and gifts from families whose loved ones were buried there. The parish, which includes only 45 families, also was providing some assistance from its small budget. But population declines in the rural community meant there were only 1 or 2 burials a year of late, and costs for mowing the grass and other care kept rising.
That’s when the idea of creating an endowment came about. Carlson, St. Mary’s pastor, Father Richard Baumberger, and representatives of the Catholic Community Foundation of Eastern South Dakota met to discuss options. They decided to set up the endowment. Then Carlson and his family went to work. His mother, Joyce Carlson, jumped into the project wholeheartedly. Attempting to identify relatives of the nearly 150 people buried at St. Mary’s, she poured over small town history books, scouring the internet and matching names with cemetery records. She developed a mailing list of 110 names.
In April, 2016, Steve wrote a letter explaining the need for donations, and mailed it. Then, they waited. “I didn’t know what to expect,” Carlson said. Donations slowly started coming in. The money came from individuals and families of those buried at St. Mary’s, as well as from people with more distant connections to the town or parish. Contributions came from Chicago, Arizona, Colorado and Minneapolis. To date, almost half of the people who received the letter have responded. Within months, the St. Mary’s Cemetery fund had collected more than $12,000. “Sometimes families would get together and put in one big check,” Carlson said. “I knew they were thinking about it together then.”
Money continues to arrive and the endowment has boosted the cemetery fund about a third of the way to its goal of solvency. Carlson hopes it will continue to grow. Steve Carlson, who grew up in the Bryant area, and lives with his wife, Penny, and their children on a farm north of town, sees the work more as fulfilling a basic responsibility. He said he and his family have helped take care of other rural cemeteries around the area over the years, realizing that over time, connections to families of those buried in the aging cemeteries, have declined. “You just kind of have a spot in your heart for these cemeteries,” he said.