In Search of Lost Graves
Illinois Knights spearhead a project to locate unmarked remains in a historic Catholic cemetery
By Cecilia Engbert 11/22/2023
Several Knights from Twin City Council 891 assembled for a work day in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Champaign, Illinois, early one morning this past September. Not for the first time — Council 891 has been maintaining and improving the historic Catholic cemetery for several years, honoring the dead who are buried there and giving comfort to their families.
This work day, however, the Knights were trading rakes and shovels for something more high-tech: ground-penetrating radar.
St. Mary’s contains more than 3,000 headstones, but the Knights suspected that numerous graves in the 157-year-old cemetery are unmarked, either because a marker was never placed or because the marker has been stolen or destroyed by natural elements.
That’s why Council 891 decided to bring in radar experts. Scanning under the surface of the 12-acre plot with ground-penetrating radar would allow the Knights to create a comprehensive underground map of St. Mary’s Cemetery.
“Our goal is to have some good records to show where people are actually buried,” said Denny Santarelli, a member of Council 891 involved in the mapping project. “This will give us the ability to check our paper records against this actual map and see how accurate they are.”
The Knights got in touch with Bill Vavrik, a senior vice president with the engineering firm Applied Research Associates. Vavrik, who is Catholic, was eager to get on board with the project, and he also suggested recruiting physics students from the High School of St. Thomas More in Champaign to help make the scan and analyze the resulting data.
On Sept. 9, the Knights and the high school students spent about eight hours driving ARA’s radar equipment, hitched to a utility terrain vehicle, over almost every inch of the cemetery grounds. The radar was set to detect objects, or even variations in the soil, about 6 feet below the surface.
“[The radar] will map out every inch-and-a-half by 6 feet and pick up anything that’s there,” explained Bob Pratten, another member of Council 891. “It can pick up whether ground was at one time disturbed 6 feet under; it’s that sensitive.”
With the scan complete, the students are now analyzing the data, which must be done manually. The Knights hope to have the completed map by the end of the year, and their next step will be to compare the map to cemetery records and a surface map created in 2022.
“Where the records show no burial, maybe the underground map will show remnants of a burial,” Pratten said. “We may not be able to find exactly who it is, but at least we’ll know it’s occupied.”
It’s all part of the local Knights’ wider efforts to care for the cemetery — efforts that began in 2019, when Knights noticed that the graves in the children’s section were poorly marked and overgrown. They organized several cleanup days, inviting local council members and other volunteers from scouting organizations, Catholic schools, local businesses and the parish community to pitch in. Since then, the Knights have formed a special planning group devoted to maintaining the cemetery.
Local Knights hold cleanup days three to four times a year, and Santarelli estimates that more than 2,000 volunteer hours have gone into trimming bushes and trees, pulling weeds, leveling graves, repairing headstones, installing signs and flagpoles, and removing or replacing old fences. The work that the Knights cannot do themselves, they raise money to have completed.
“The Knights are always looking for a project to bring the council together, and a Catholic cemetery is a really good one,” Pratten said. “It started with the children’s section, but one thing led to another and now here we are — first an above-ground map, then a below-ground map. And there’s a long list of things to continue to do.”
One project that Champaign-area councils have been working for the last several years is an “Avenue of Flags.” Their goal is to line all the streets of the cemetery with flagpoles, and they have raised the funds to install 55 so far. The U.S. flag and the flags of the U.S. military services are raised on every major patriotic holiday; for the past two years, the Knights have also organized a Memorial Day Mass in the cemetery.
“The people that have family members buried here at the cemetery are so excited about the work we’ve done,” Santarelli said. “We just want to improve the cemetery the best we can and make it into a respectful place for prayer and reflection. We are proud of what we have accomplished.”
CECILIA ENGBERT is a content producer for the Knights of Columbus Communications Department.