Heart of the Plains: Sole cemetery on the Eastern Plains serves faithful
By Julie Filby
This story is the second in a series leading up to Memorial Day about cemeteries in the Denver Archdiocese and the Catholic Church’s teaching on burials and funerals.
Photo by Angela Klausner
Heart of the Plains
Heart of the Plains Cemetery, adjacent to Sacred Heart Church in Roggen, rests under the sweeping blue skies in the open landscape of Colorado’s Eastern Plains.
The space, 60 miles northeast of Denver, lends itself to views of beautiful simplicity: lush green rows of winter wheat, muted shades of green and brown buffalo grass, an occasional tree dotting the countryside, and in every direction, grain silos serve as reminders of God’s intention for the land.
“The cemetery blends perfectly with the landscape,” pastor Father Hector Chiapa-Villarreal told the Denver Catholic Register. “We don’t have a source of water so we rely on the rains … it shows the ‘spirit’ of the community in the sense that we rely on the providence of God, as far as weather is concerned.”
The quiet prairie cemetery, established five years ago, is important to the rural farming community of Roggen and the surrounding areas of Keenesburg, Prospect Valley, Wiggins, Hudson, Brighton and Greeley. It is the only Catholic cemetery on the Eastern Plains.
“It allows us to be buried at home,” said cemetery committee member Linda Epple, who serves on the committee with husband Bill, along with about a dozen other parishioners. “It’s simple, peaceful, and families can visit often.”
It is evident that families do visit often, as each of the 24 graves is decorated with flowers, crosses, flags, angels, wreaths, pinwheels or military recognition. People also visit the contemplative site to spend time in prayer.
“We want the cemetery to be a place a prayer,” said Father Chiapa-Villarreal. “A spiritual refuge if you will.”
The 5-acre grounds, surrounded by a heart-shaped prayer path, are lined with 20 granite benches inscribed with mysteries of the rosary. Several times a year, the parish hosts a rosary walk along the path.
The central plaza, modeled after the cross shape of the church, includes an altar, an Italian marble statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and 14 granite benches inscribed with the Stations of the Cross.
When asked about the design, Epple indicated the “Holy Spirit had a big hand in it.”
“We visited lots of smaller cemeteries … and knew we wanted to have a prayer park,” she said, but plans submitted by their architect “didn’t feel right.”
“One morning after Sunday mass, we were sitting at the breakfast table,” she said, “And (Bill) took a napkin and drew it.”
Parishioners and community members donated the benches, statue and land. Land donors, Gerald and Albert Sigg, are buried in the cemetery next to the plaza, identified with handwritten markers in unassuming metal frames.
The cemetery committee, assisted by family members, parishioners, and the community at large, conducts burials as a ministry of Sacred Heart Parish.
“Since it’s a small community, most of the time we’re burying family and friends,” said Epple. “We’re burying someone we know.
“We are deeply honored,” she added, “to serve our cemetery families and their beloved dead.”
Father Chiapa-Villarreal, who grew up in Mexico City, one of the world’s largest cities, has been introduced to a sense of community he’s never known before.
“I was pretty much a city boy, I never had the experience of a rural community until I became a priest,” said the priest of six years. “I was blown away by the goodness of the people … (they are) honest, hard-working, have a deep love for God, for the Church, and are truly committed to their community.
“There is a radical generosity.”
The committee has donated a plot for the burial of sacred items, such as liturgical books, vestments, sacred vessels and other blessed items that are “not in good shape.”
“One way to dispose of blessed items is to bury them, especially in sacred ground,” said Father Chiapa-Villarreal.
Parishes throughout the archdiocese are invited to bring items to the church to be buried later this year.
The community also invites everyone to join them for a Memorial Day event at the cemetery 9 a.m. May 28. The program will recognize military members present, living and deceased, with a roll call. In addition, there will be patriotic music, prayer, tributes and a salute from a Howitzer canon.
“This time of year is one of the most beautiful times to drive up to the plains,” said Father Chiapa-Villarreal. “The Eastern Plains are the best kept secret in our archdiocese.”