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Deacon marks headstone of his ancestors

Helps to remember the legacy of his great-grandparents

By Dan Russo

Witness Editor

Photo above: Tyler Abigt adds the names of Josef and Zofie (Sophia) to the headstone. He is using a pneumatic chisel on Aug. 24

OXFORD JUNCTION — Jozef Peckosh, known by his nickname “Joe,” came to the United States when he was 6-years-old. Joining him on the journey from Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) to Oxford Junction, Iowa, were his father Josef, his mother Zofie (Sophia) and his younger brother Jan, called “John,” who was only 4.

By age 39, this oldest of seven children had a good job with a railroad and was in charge of a pumping station on the St. James River in South Dakota. Far from his family in Iowa, he caught Typhoid fever and died in 1909, according to the Oxford Mirror. His brother Frank traveled the long distance to claim Joe’s body. The man was known to all as “faithful” — someone who sacrificed for his younger siblings, and was active in his church.

“Joe Peckosh was never known to fail in any duty, no matter how irksome,” stated his obituary.

The Mass at Sacred Heart Church, celebrated by Father Ballon, drew a crowd.

“The funeral cortage was one of the largest ever known in Oxford as the church was overflowing with friends who wished to express their respect for the deceased and his sorrowing family,” noted the Mirror.

The loss of their eldest son was hard for Jozef and Zofie Pekař, who later altered the spelling of their Czech name to Peckosh to adapt it for American pronunciation. Zofie died in 1915, with her husband joining her in 1933. The patriarch was a well-known tailor and “oldest resident in Oxford Township” when he passed at 93-years-old. His obituary described him this way:

“It may truly be said (Josef) was a pioneer of this locality and throughout the years of community development, he took an active interest and full responsibility.”

The parents were laid to rest in the same grave as their eldest son at Mayflower Cemetery. For years, their remains lay among fellow Czech immigrants. For reasons unknown, the names of Josef and Zofie were never added to the headstone that marks the plot they share with their eldest son. Then came 2016, the Year of Mercy; Deacon Paul Peckosh of Dubuque, noticed the oversight while visiting the grave. He is the great-grandson of Josef and Zofie. His grandfather is John, Joe Peckosh’s younger brother. Deacon Peckosh had visited the site many times, but hadn’t made the observation of the missing names.

“I never really realized it until this spring,” he said.

Deacon Paul Peckosh stands by the grave of his great-grandparents after their names were added to the headstone in Oxford Junction. (Contributed photos)
Deacon Paul Peckosh stands by the grave of his great-grandparents after their names were added to the headstone in Oxford Junction. (Contributed photos)

After contacting one of the trustees of the cemetery to confirm his great-grandparents were, in fact, buried there, Deacon Peckosh got to work. He decided that adding the names would be a great way to fulfill the corporal work of mercy of “burying the dead.” The deacon had already done lots of research on his family history, even obtaining records of baptisms and marriages from churches in the Czech Republic.

“We are very much a product of those that came before us,” said Deacon Peckosh of his passion for genealogy. “We’re so dependent on our grandparents and our parents on how we came to be. There’s just such a connection when you know their story.”

Retired from a career in banking, the deacon serves at St. Raphael Cathedral. He became aware of the story of Josef, Zofie, Joe, his grandfather, and the couple’s other children through newspaper records and other sources.

“When you do genealogical research, you come across so many families that had so many of their children die,” said Deacon Peckosh. “I came across an ancestor who had in the early 1800s lost five kids in four years. Can you imagine the heartache that must have been when these kids got sick and there was no medicine? It’s really sad when you think of it. It’s really sad today when people just lose one child. Imagine losing three or four.”

It took months to determine what inscription the deacon wanted to put onto the headstone for his ancestors. All of the headstones in the section of the cemetery where the couple is buried are in Czech, so Deacon Peckosh had to figure out how to translate the English words into the Czech language. He contacted Loras College and the National Czech and Slovak Museum in Cedar Rapids for help. He came up with the inscription: “Here rests Josef Pekař, Born 15 February 1840, Died 3 May 1933, his wife Zofie, Born 15 May 1847, Died 13 March 1915. Rest in Peace.”

“There are three ways to say Rest in Peace in Czech,” said the deacon. “I had two Czech speaking people agree to look at it.”

The next step was to find a company able to place the words on the stone. Hansen Monument Company in DeWitt put Deacon Peckosh in touch with Tyler Abigt. The young man owns his own lettering company that specializes in adding markings to stones. On Aug. 24, the deacon and two of his cousins arrived at the cemetery to watch Abigt do his work. Over the course of about eight hours, the inscription was sandblasted onto the marker. Abigt then had to use a pneumatic chisel to work out the finer points of the job, which included punctuation marks in Czech. Deacon

Peckosh is adamant about the importance of proper burial for the dead, and about remembering people after they pass.

“I think that to see a tombstone, monument or headstone and the names, it’s a great source of meditation of the time, the life, the influence, (who that person) might have been in that long chain,” he said. “You don’t get that elsewhere.”

The deacon hopes the headstone will have a positive impact on those who see it.

“If someone is reading the inscription, whether it’s a family member or someone else, and it gives them cause to pause and reflect on immigration, on the lives that (my great-grandparents) lived, how they stuck with their faith in hard times,” he said. “I suppose that’s what you could hope for.”