Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Centralia: St. Mary's Cemetery

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Catholic Church
From St. Ignatius Cemetery, Centralia

I am going to start this one with a warning - there is a mine fire burning underground in the area of Centralia. Gases seep from the ground - sinkholes have been known to suddenly open - the times I've visited the area the dust and ash in the air irritated my throat. With this being said, I take no responsibility if you visit the area and get injured.

Often when I visit a cemetery, I have a particular reason to be there; I search the stones to find the person of interest and then too often continue on my way, forgetting the stories of those buried there. Each stone is a story and I often think about the book Spoon River Anthology, as I walk among the silent stones, as each stone calls out its story.

I had not planned on visiting the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Cemetery (for the rest of this entry, I will refer to its other name, St. Mary's) on the outskirts of Centralia the day I made my trip through the ghost town. Centralia had been abandoned after a mine fire that continues to burn beneath the town. Most of the homes have been abandoned and razed, though some still stand as the long-time residents continue to live in the houses they've called home all of their lives.

As I entered Aristes, heading southward on Route 42, some roadwork sent me off onto Center Street and knowing that I was going past St. Mary's Cemetery and seeing I was slightly ahead of schedule, I decided to stop. After missing the turn into the cemetery, I turned around and drove back the gravel road to the small parking area just outside the cemetery gates. I had nothing in my notes that would have caused me to stop, so I figured I'd wander around the cemetery to see what I could discover.

Memorial for Peter Revotskie

Inside the gate, on the left side of the roadway was a stone that immediately caught my attention. The name Peter Revotskie meant nothing to me, but as I read the words, the phrase "died in the service of his country at sea," instantly caught my attention. Peter was from nearby Ashland and as Fireman First Class, he served on the submarine USS Pompano (SS-181). On September 17, 1942, the submarine was lost off of the coast of Japan. I'm not sure why his death date is listed as January 4, 1946, instead of the date he disappeared.

I started walking towards the rear of St. Mary's, I heard a vehicle pulling into the lot. As I walked, an elderly man made a direct route towards me. I paused and waited for him as he walked over.

"Do I know you?" he demanded in a thick accent.

"No," I answered. "Just traveling through."

"Why are you here?" he demanded.

"Just visiting," I replied. "Searching for any interesting graves."

"Good thing I came along," he spoke very seriously. "Let me show you some interesting people I knew." He introduced himself as Peter Keninitz and he had grown up in Centralia, though he now called Ashland his home.

I followed him to the rear of the cemetery. "This is where I'll be buried. Right there next to my wife."

Grave of Michael Keninitz

"This is where my brother is buried," he pointed at a large stone near the place his wife was buried. "He died when the mine flooded. He was a good man."

On March 20, 1965, Michael Keninitz and Anthony Rompolski died when the mine they were working in flooded. The two men had nowhere to go as water, mud, and debris filled the tunnel. Michael's body was recovered soon after the tragic event, and rescue crews began digging in hopes of rescuing Anthony; unfortunately, his body was recovered a couple days later. The flood was created when the ceiling broke, allowing the lake (it had been formed by water draining into an abandoned strip mine) to fill the mine.

"And over there is Andrew," he paused for a moment as he collected his thoughts. "He was on furlough when he was hit by a car. A hit-and-run they called it and they never discovered who the driver was. He spent the next six years in the hospital recovering."

I wasn't able to find out more about Andrew's hit-and-run but obviously it was bad if it took six years to recover from the accident.

"My mother's first born are buried over there."

"My first father made the stones for the young ones," he remarked as we walked over to the white pillars. I had to ask for clarification. "I was the baby of the family. My first father died when I was three. My mother remarried and he was my second father."

"So he was your step-father?"

"No, he was my second father...my mother's buried here with my first father and my second father is over at St. Ignatius."

He stepped over to the cross that was slowly sinking into the ground. "I'll need to reset this some day. But this is where my mother's first three children are buried." Between the Ukrainian Crosses is a marker with three names on it: Anna, Helen, and Alex. "My mother's first three didn't survive infancy. I was up here last summer to repaint the crosses."

"You said your father made these?"

"He took a piece of rail, put it in a mould  and poured concrete to make them. Don't know why he never made a third. But I come up here to take care of them."

Grave of Paul Fago

"Over her is the grave of Paul Fago...good ol' Pauly. He died while ditch cleaning. Giant piece of rock fell from the ceiling."

"Ditch cleaning? What is that?"

"He would clean the ditch along the tracks." The look of confusion must have been obvious on my face. "He'd walk along the tracks and pick up the coal that had fallen from the cars."

"We used to call him Pauly the Parrot because he would whistle like a bird," he laughed as he remembered his coworker and friend.

We walked down the hill to where his mother and father were buried and paid our respects to them before he said he had to get going.

I stood there for a while after he drove off and couldn't help but think of the stories I would have missed had I not stopped. The side trip was a lesson in one man's past as I heard the stories of those buried there. Unlike the often silent stones, the stones in St. Mary's revealed their personal stories that day as Peter shared them with me.

For those visiting St. Mary's - the fire that killed Centralia is not a factor when visiting. The church is deemed to be out of the impact zone and thus has been allowed to remain where it stands. Please use respect when visiting.


  1. A very interesting interview. "Good thing 'he' came along." :)

  2. Nice post Norman. Good thing you and Pete met. Thanks

  3. For those of you who have read this article before, it has been editted. Afterall, I have been accused of being an insensitive person because I find the history of an area and cemeteries interesting.

    Before I go any further, this will be the last comment on this article. Once posted, all comments will be blocked - I will not start a war of words on here and any emails about the subject will instantly be deleted.

    To the person who called me insensitive:

    First, I deleted the comment about me being insensitive, though I will reply to it. I refuse to be called insensitive without the person actually knowing me. If an article needs changed, the wrong place is on the comments section, so henceforth it was deleted.

    Second of all, I knew the story I deleted long before Pete and I met. All he did was make the history of the area real and meaningful. I, like thousands of others, had already read their tragic demise in the books about Centralia. Hope an email about the subject was sent to the various authors of books and blogs and all of the newspapers that carried the story telling them how insensitive they were for reporting it.

    With that being said, I'm going to say I'm sorry if you were offended.

    It was not meant to be and at no time did I disrespect them in my blog. Yes, the phrasing I used is "interesting" and I do not feel that it was used disrespectfully. I find the stories of all people interesting and unique. And I'm sorry to say their tragic story is "interesting" - sorry for the choice of words, but that was the phrasing I used at the time I was asked what I was doing there.

    To accuse me of being insensitive is harsh, especially when you do not personally know me. I've stood in hundreds of cemeteries across the state and cannot even start to imagine the pain, the sorrow, the anger that the deceased and the living must have felt. From Centralia to Flight 93 Memorial, from Jane and John Does to Governors, from the rich to the poor - every single one of them deserves and got nothing but respect from me and will continue to do so.

    The article overall and the stories within was not meant to disrespect, but instead was to show that the fire did more than just hurt the town - the fire burning deep underground killed. The fire caused problems in a community that did not exist pre-fire. The fire killed off a community, a people, a culture - but most people do not see it that way. They see Centralia as a "playground" to explore and visit.

    Again, I'm sorry. I'm sorry I offended you. I'm sorry for the loss of loved ones we hold dear. I'm sorry for the loss of the town. I'm sorry for the loss of a way of life. I'm sorry I wished to show people the true nature of what the fire did to people. I'm sorry you think I'm insensitive. I'm sorry I find the stories of others interesting.

    But I'm not sorry for the fact Pete and I met. It was a chance meeting and I learned a lot from him, stories that hopefully will one day be shared. At least he cared enough to keep the history of the region alive.

    Yet for the sake of preventing a war I removed your family's history. It, like most of Centralia, is gone.