ANTHON, Iowa | In the small town of Anthon, there are two cemeteries one mile apart -- Oak Hill Cemetery on the north edge of town and the Mount St. Joseph Cemetery on the south end. The latter is where people of the Catholic faith have been buried for generations.

Separate cemeteries for Catholics have been a tradition in many Iowa communities since the state was first settled more than 150 years ago, although with some differences. Twenty miles from Anthon, for example, the town of Danbury has a single cemetery, although with widely known sections for Catholics and non-Catholics.

"Well, you go to the Catholic side," was the phrase Ruth Groth, of Anthon, said she heard from her Catholic relatives from Danbury.

The separate Catholic cemeteries are something many Siouxlanders have known about, and they'll have a reminder this weekend when many decorate the graves of relatives and friends as part of the Memorial Day holiday.

But in many communities, the practice of separate cemeteries is waning, according to local officials.

Groth, who serves as the Anthon city clerk, said about five years ago the practice of Catholics being only buried in St. Joseph started ending, so some now are interred in Oak Hill Cemetery. University of Northern Iowa History Professor Thomas Connors also pointed to the change regionally.

There was a history of anti-Catholic sentiment in American history well into the latter half of the 20th century, including the perception that it was groundbreaking -- and troubling to some people-- that a Catholic, John F. Kennedy, was elected president in 1960. But Connors noted the rise of separate Catholic cemeteries didn't emerge out of anti-Catholic opinions by people who wanted to nix Catholics from being buried with them or their decedents.

Rather, the professor said, the practice began with Catholics setting their own cemeteries in Europe hundreds of years ago.

"The tradition of burial in consecrated ground for Catholics, in a separate Catholic cemetery, is very old, dating back to the Medieval period, even before cemeteries themselves were developed in the 19th century, when all burial grounds tended to be sectarian churchyards that only members could be buried in," Connors said.

Connors noted other denominations also established their own cemeteries. That's the case in places in Woodbury County with cemeteries that are 100 years old, such as a next to a Lutheran church in the so-called Midway area near Battle Creek and a Methodist church in the ghost town of Rock Branch.

"In some Iowa communities, I've heard there are separate German Catholic and Irish Catholic cemeteries," Connors said, citing something that was true for Danbury.

Connors said Catholic officials, since the Vatican II reforms of the 1960s, loosened the necessity of Catholics only being buried in cemeteries entirely under church control. He gave the example of the Catholic cemetery in Cedar Falls, Iowa, now being incorporated into a public cemetery, and a priest has blessed the entire cemetery so that Catholics can be buried anywhere there.

In Woodbury County, Groth said people of varying faiths are choosing on their own not to be constrained by old conventions of being buried in only a specific cemetery.

"It is not as hard and fast," she said.

Groth said some Catholics in the last five years have been buried in Oak Hill and non-Catholics are interred in St. Joseph. Anthon became a town in 1883 and St. Joseph opened in 1897.

Over in Danbury, Mary Ann Sohm is a township clerk who has a role in oversight of the sole cemetery, St. Patrick's, which has some three interesting elements within. There are two portions with former Catholic cemeteries (St. Patrick's for Irish and St. Mary's for Germans that date to the 1880s) that adjoin, along with the non-Catholic community portion of Liston Township.

They are all combined in one cemetery, with a longstanding east-west line of separation between the combined Catholic and non-Catholic section. Sohm added, "it is an imaginary line," after stone markers once at the corners were removed some years ago.

Sohm said people of varying faiths are being buried on both sides of the Danbury cemetery, something she said started about 10 years ago and is increasing.

"We've got it going both ways. The lines are not as distinct anymore," Sohm said.

Brooke Kafton, of Danbury, said she was raised in the Catholic faith, however, her family never insisted that members must be buried in a Catholic tract. Kafton, 29, hasn't set her funeral plans, but said it won't specifically involve a Catholic cemetery.

"Wherever I end up, I end up," Kafton said.


County and education reporter

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