Mason City cemetery tour connects living to deceased loved ones, Catholic history

By Dan Russo

Witness Editor

MASON CITY — John Infante Sr. was not formally trained as a monument maker. Nonetheless, when his firstborn son, John Jr., died at 4 days old, he decided to make what today is called a headstone with his own hands to mark the grave. 

“(Professionally made headstones) were expensive for one and he liked to do that,” explained Val Infante, John Sr.’s second oldest son. “He made things out of cement. To this day, it’s still there and in good shape.” 

Like many of the headstones in Elmwood-St. Joseph Cemetery in Mason City, John Jr.’s grave reflects the unique and often dramatic history of the local area. Due to John Infante’s  lack of formal schooling in the English language, the “N” on the cross-shaped grave marker is backwards. The patriarch of the Infante family, whose descendants are still members of Epiphany Parish in the city, fled his native country of Mexico in 1926 amidst the turmoil of the Cristero Rebellion. The war from 1926-29 pitted Catholics like Infante against a secular, militantly atheist government determined to destroy the church.

 

The ‘folk headstone’ shown above marks the grave of John Infante Jr., who died as a baby. His father, John Sr., made it by hand using cement. (Photo by Carol K. Byrne)

In search of religious freedom and new opportunity, Infante immigrated to the United States and landed a job at a cement manufacturing plant in Mason City,  where he married his wife, Mercedes, and had a family, including John Jr., Val and  other children.

“He worked at the (cement plant) until the day that he died,” explained Val Infante. “He and my mother are buried about 30 feet away from John Jr.”

Members  of Epiphany, which now includes the previously separate parishes of St. Joseph and Holy Family, have documented much of the rich history of the church in the area. It will be told through the stories of the individual Catholics buried in the St. Joseph section of the cemetery, like John Infante Jr. and his parents.  

On June 9, the parish will host two walking tours at 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. that focus on the Catholic community’s legacy there. Titled “With the Hands of Christ,” the events will be hosted by Karen Byrne, Epihany’s pastoral associate.

“I wanted to know some of the stories behind those monuments and how they affect our lives today,” she said. “They just draw me in. These are the people that built our town. These are the people that built our parish. It’s making the cemetery come alive.” 

The St. Joseph burial ground is now combined with the interdenominational Elmwood Cemetery into a combined 40-acre facility that was recognized by the National Register of Historic Places in 2018. This designation came as the result of the painstaking research and preservation work of locals like Byrne.

The Catholic-centered tours will include a prayer service focused on thanking the deceased for their contributions to the parish. Later this summer and in the fall, history tours including the Elmwood section, developed in conjunction with the cemetery managers, will also be offered. The facilities, founded in 1867 (Elmwood) and 1875 (St. Joseph), were merged  and taken over by the city in 1950. Over 20,000 graves are currently part of the active cemetery. The idea for tours came out of the need  to raise money for preservation, according to Randy Opheim, who manages the cemetery and worked with Byrne on developing the tours. He also works with local Catholics to maintain the monuments. 

“Karen is so enthusiastic with the research,” said Opheim. “She has so much fun doing it. Students from Newman Catholic Schools have helped out during service days for past two years. That’s a blessing.” 

Byrne was able to uncover a lot of interesting information about the cemetery with the help of North Iowa Genealogical Society, the archives at the Mason City Public Library, the records of the city of Mason City and the archives of the Archdiocese of Dubuque. 

“By focusing on deceased founders and other important figures of the parish community in Mason City, she has tapped into a rich source of information about the triumphs and tragedies of our forefathers (and foremothers) in faith,” said Dan Burns, archdiocesan archivist. 

Beginning toward the end of the 19th century and into the 20th,  sugar beet and cement plants, as well as other industries drew people of over 40 nationalities to Mason City. The newcomers included Irish, Mexicans, Germans, Greeks, Jews and Italians, among many others, in addition to native-born Americans who migrated from other parts of the country. The monuments in St. Joseph reflect the diversity in the church and the nation. Some were intricately made by professional artisans, such as a  granite monument for Maria Garcia Ramirez (Rocha) depicting the Gates of Heaven, referencing Revelation 21:21. 

Others made by nonprofessionals are designated as “folk headstones,” such as John Infante Jr’s, because they were created by people without formal training.  

Some people’s graves have no stones at all, such as the one for Felino Ammazzatude, an Italian immigrant who died of influenza after  18 months in the U.S.

The headstone of Mr. and Mrs. Toinbee, a Confederate soldier who married the daughter of a Union soldier is part of  the tour. 

“This was the first marriage at St. Joseph’s (Church),” according to Byrne’s notes for the tour. 

Epiphany Parish is requesting that participants preregister for the June 9 tours by calling the parish office at 641-423-5001. People will also be accepted the day of the event, according to Byrne. 

 

Cover photo: Val Infante, his sister Lupe Dianda (seated) and Connie Dianda (Lupe’s daughter) at the marker for John Infante. John was the brother to Val and Lupe. Their father, John Sr., made the marker. (Contributed photo)

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