St. Mary’s Confirmation students clear headstones at Oak Knoll Cemetery north of Willmar – West Central Tribune

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WILLMAR

— Julie Neubauer of Lake Lillian, wrote a history of the Willmar Regional Treatment Center for the Kandiyohi County Historical Society newsletter. The last part of his research focused on what happened to all the people who died. Many had been abandoned to the state and had lived their entire lives in the state hospital.

She found records for the State Hospital Cemetery, which was renamed Oak Knoll Cemetery, located northwest of the State Hospital campus.

Pupils from St. Mary’s Confirmation Class clean up markers in the Catholic section of Oak Knoll Cemetery, north of Willmar, on October 26, 2022.

Donna Middleton / West Central Tribune

Originally, burial plots had only one number. The “Remembering with Dignity” group received funding from the state legislature in 1997 and began installing foot markers with names.

Patients in the treatment center were buried by religion – Catholics in one section and Protestants in another. In 2003, a Russian Jewish woman, who had been placed in a mental institution at the age of 14 and then transferred to Willmar, died and was buried all alone near the east fence.

When Neubauer first visited the cemetery, she found that the fence was overgrown and needed brush removal to keep it from collapsing. She called for volunteers for help.

A student using a shovel to clear overgrown grass from a gravestone.  Pupils from St. Mary's Confirmation Class clean up markers in the Catholic section of Oak Knoll Cemetery, north of Willmar, on October 26, 2022.
A confirmation student from St. Mary’s Catholic Church uses a shovel to clear overgrown grass from a headstone at Oak Knoll Cemetery north of Willmar on October 26, 2022.

Donna Middleton / West Central Tribune

The Historical Society’s “Thursday Team” cleared two fences. IAM members cleared another fence and the Willmar High School Cross Country Team cleared the final fence.

Neubauer then approached St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Willmar to see if confirmation students could help clean up the overgrown foot markers. The church rented portable lamps and on October 26 the students cleaned five rows in the Catholic section. They dug up the grass that had overgrown the markers and cleaned up the dirt.

Under Neubauer’s direction, the students greeted each person by reading their name aloud as they worked to restore the markers.

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