First St. John Lutheran Church is giving focused attention to perpetual care. Thoughts of the eternal are a major aspect of religious life, but sometimes the sanctuary and the living congregation get much more attention than the people buried nearby. First St. John has its own cemetery with a roll of names from “the history of Oregon,” said Joanne Crandall, the chair of the church's cemetery committee. The ancestors' resting place, though, was not receiving the highest maintenance.
Thanks to a major parish anniversary and a church member lost at sea almost 70 years ago during World War II, First St. John's cemetery is now getting care that it had been missing, Richard Henry Dickey now has a memorial marker, and the church's burial ground has also become a place for the living, with a commemorative garden of pavers members purchased that celebrate life events like baptisms and weddings alongside stones “in memory of.”
“This really started about three years ago when our congregation turned 150 years old and they were doing research on everything, going through the archives to put together a program,” said Ms. Crandall. She and Floyd Hagedorn—a direct descendant of First St. John's original pastor, who is buried in the cemetery—“sat for days and days and went through all the old records in the books in the safe and transcribed them from German to English. We were able to figure out everybody, who was buried where, and even read stones that are unreadable because they're 140 years old. We've kind of taken this on as our baby, so to speak.”
Jay Emch, another congregation member, also made the cemetery a special project. “He's gone through every stone in this cemetery,” Ms. Crandall said, raising and straightening stones that sank and even unearthing markers of forgotten people buried at First St. John's who were residents of the former Lutheran seniors' residence next door.
“People have been long gone and possibly paid $2.50 for perpetual care,” Ms. Crandall said. “It's a big responsibility to take care of something like this; the grass-cutting expense is astronomical.” So she was thinking of ways to provide for the cemetery's upkeep. And the memory of one deceased church member, Mr. Dickey, provided the opportunity.
Mr. Dickey, a Clay High School graduate, was 18 and had joined the U.S. Merchant Marine on March 26, 1944. Just 20 days later he was on the tanker the SS Pan Pennsylvania, which left New York Harbor carrying 140,000 barrels of gasoline to the United Kingdom. “I read one article where they were so hard up for men at that point,” Ms. Crandall said, “that they went in and got basically no training because there wasn't time to train them.”
On April 16, 70 miles off the coast of Nantucket, the German submarine U-550 torpedoed his ship. Mr. Dickey died that day, apparently amid confusion regarding launching lifeboats, according to a letter the ship's captain later sent to Mr. Dickey's father. “The ship is sinking, there's a fire—a small fire, it didn't explode,” Ms. Crandall said. “That must have been all those guys could think of, was this thing's is a bomb, it's going to explode, let's get off of it.”
The SS Pan Pennsylvania capsized, and aircraft bombed and sank it two days later.
The U-550 was pursued, attacked, and sunk the same day it torpedoed the SS Pan Pennsylvania. Coincidentally, it was finally located on the ocean floor in 2012 while the application process was under way for Mr. Dickey's memorial marker, Ms. Crandall said.
Mr. Dickey, who has no surviving family, was not forgotten by his congregation. Though he has no grave because he was lost at sea, on holidays like Memorial Day the church would post a placard telling his story. Ms. Crandall said that for Memorial Day 2012 when the Christ Dunberger American Legion Post 537 brought flags to place at grave sites in First St. John's cemetery, she requested a flag for Mr. Dickey, too. The post member asked why there was no marker, knowing Mr. Dickey was entitled to one for his service. The church and the post worked together to get him one from the U.S. government.
Ms. Crandall thought of how to honor Mr. Dickey—and to help provide for the cemetery's perpetual care. Making a physical space for Mr. Dickey's memorial inspired the commemorative garden, and Jeff Moritz of Landscape Design, 2402 Front St., volunteered to provide materials and labor to place Mr. Dickey's marker and build the garden. Mr. Moritz also has a First St. John's tie; “all his relatives are buried out here, too,” Ms. Crandall said.
The Dickey stone “is just a good thing, I think. Good for the community, not just for St. John's, for the Oregon community and Clay High School," Ms. Crandall said. "I feel very strongly about this, that finally he's going to have a place that people can come to and he can be acknowledged after all these years.”
A memorial service and stone dedication will be held for Richard Henry Dickey at 10 a.m. Sept. 14 at the commemorative garden at First St. John's Lutheran Church, 2471 Seaman St. “ I spoke with a half dozen of the people that he was confirmed with here, that he went to school with. We've got some stories.” An American Legion honor guard will be at the ceremony. And First St. John's will show, again, that it cares.