New life for an old cemetery

Photo: Stephen Brashear Photo: Stephen Brashear

Jim Puttman’s two decades of advocacy bring improvements to Enumclaw-area burial ground

As the sun sets on All Saints’ Day, candles flicker on the graves at Holy Family Cemetery. Parishioners from Sacred Heart Parish in nearby Enumclaw pray the rosary, and their priest walks among the graves, blessing them with holy water, continuing a 130-year tradition.

“It’s a beautiful sight,” said Jim Puttman, 91, who lives up the road, on the same land his grandparents, German immigrants, bought a few years after arriving here from Minnesota in 1891.

On a recent late-summer afternoon, Puttman stood among the graves of this rural cemetery that has held so much meaning in his life.

When Puttman was 9, his father died and was buried here. As a young teenager, Puttman hand-dug graves here for other people being laid to rest. Nearly all of his family members are among the 352 people buried here.

The cemetery originally was connected to the now-defunct Holy Family Church, built over a century ago in the community then called Krain, after a region in Austria whose name means “at the foot of the hill,” Puttman said.

Practicing their Catholic faith and being active in the parish was important to Puttman’s parents, who passed it down to their six children. “I’ll tell you one thing, when Mass would be on in the morning, everyone [in the family] was lined up to go — no ifs, buts or whens,” Puttman said. “You got in there. That was primary.”

Mass was celebrated on the second and fourth Sundays of the month. Puttman was an altar boy for a few years, and the pastor paid him 2 bits (25 cents) to bicycle to the church and build a fire to warm the building before Mass.

He remembers parishioners back then — including his dad and grandmother — doing their best to take care of the cemetery, using scythes to cut the grass. “But it was always going downhill,” Puttman said. In later years, he said, the fence was gone and kids tipped over the gravestones. “I’d have to come out here with my backhoe and pick them back up,” Puttman said.

He knew something needed to be done.

For more than two decades, Puttman petitioned seven successive pastors at Sacred Heart for help improving and expanding the cemetery.

“When Father [Anthony K.A.] Davis came here, I started in on him,” Puttman said of the parish’s priest administrator. “Father Davis said, ‘Let’s get it done. I want it done while I’m here.’ And that’s the best thing I’ve ever heard,” Puttman said.

Puttman is known for getting things done, said Nancy Merrill, chairman of Sacred Heart’s cemetery committee. He’s been on the parish council, raised money for the parish’s new church in 1974, and has been active in the community — serving 39 years on the hospital board and 50 years with the Rotary Club.

“He’s always busy making sure good things are happening,” Merrill said.

Krain CemeteryImproving and expanding Holy Family Cemetery has been a passion of Jim Puttman’s for decades. Photo: Stephen Brashear

A gift allows expansion

The All Saints’ Day tradition of lighting candles on the graves was brought by Slovenian settlers, most of them from the same parish in Austria, who arrived in Krain in the late 1800s.

The settlers established farms and ranches, and 33 Catholic families (Austrian and Irish) banded together to raise $625 to build a church (originally named St. Gallus, later Holy Family), according to archdiocesan archives. The building was erected on five acres of farmland donated by Mathias Malneritch. Although some burials occurred on the church property, the soil was too rocky to keep digging graves, parish records show. So in 1900, Matthew and Mary Medie sold an acre of land to the church for $50 for a new cemetery; those buried in the original cemetery were reinterred at the new site.

After Holy Family Church was closed in the 1940s (and dismantled in the late 1950s), the cemetery became the responsibility of Sacred Heart Parish in Enumclaw. The parish already had its own cemetery to take care of, and Holy Family Cemetery wasn’t among the parish’s most pressing needs. Later, Sacred Heart’s cemetery became part of the Enumclaw city cemetery, making Holy Family the area’s only Catholic-administered cemetery.

Although space for new burials was limited — in fact, many people thought the cemetery was full — Sacred Heart parishioners were dedicated to maintaining it when they could, according to Brenda Sexton, a cemetery committee member.

It was an estate gift from Cecilia “Sally” Richter, a cousin of Puttman’s who died in 2007, that allowed plans for expansion and improvements to move ahead. Richter attended the annual candlelight service and had often lamented the cemetery’s run-down state, Puttman said.

Years of paperwork and organizational changes had to be completed, and land boundary issues resolved, before the cemetery met requirements of the state and the Archdiocese of Seattle, according to Mathew Weisbeck, pastoral associate at Sacred Heart. The parish created 250 new gravesites, 150 of them in a new section consecrated by Archbishop J. Peter Sartain in April 2017.

Once the new gravesites were available, Puttman was among the first to make a purchase: plots for him and his wife Bette, next to his parents.

“Fifteen or 20 years ago, I thought we’re never going to get this done while I’m alive,” said Puttman, who noted his three sisters and their husbands were buried elsewhere while the cemetery was awaiting expansion.

Father Davis praised Puttman’s efforts over the years. “I really admire his positivity, and his resilience and his persistence in getting this project through to fruition,” he said. Puttman and all the cemetery committee members did a “great job,” Father Davis added. “Anyone who knew the cemetery before really appreciates exactly what they have done.”

‘We got to be buddies’

Holy Family Cemetery is more than a resting place for Catholics; it is a landmark that holds importance for the community, since many families from Enumclaw’s early days are buried there. Through more than 125 hours of research over several years, members of the cemetery committee have given the community a connection to its past.

The members pored over records kept by the parish, the archdiocesan archives and the local funeral home to research each person buried at the cemetery. The result of that hard work is a cemetery census, a plot map and a photograph of each marker, archived in an album.

“Each [person] has literally put a piece of their heart and soul into this project,” Sexton said of her fellow committee members.

After spending so much time researching the people buried at Holy Family Cemetery and cleaning their grave markers, “we got to be buddies,” said committee member Julene Miller.

Sexton was especially touched by reading the marker of 5-year-old Amelia Madja, who died April 12, 1908, when her parents couldn’t save her from a fire. “Someone felt compelled to etch it in stone; their heartbreak and faith on display for us to share more than 100 years later,” she said.

While the committee members were working on the research, the physical changes were under way at the cemetery: an improved parking area and new fencing, gates, landscaping and signs. Many items were donated by local merchants, community members and parishioners.

A new monument honors 60 people buried at the cemetery (according to historical records) whose gravesites can’t be identified. Three memorial benches have been installed: one for those buried in unmarked graves; another, donated by the local Slovenian lodge, for the Slovenian immigrants who founded Krain; and the third honoring Puttman’s cousin Sally and her husband, William Richter.

This year, a black metal archway with the Holy Family name was installed over the cemetery gates. “That’s the icing on the cake,” Puttman said.

All the work at the cemetery, Weisbeck said, has been an opportunity to remind Sacred Heart parishioners of the church’s teachings about the sacredness of life and death, and the commitment to those who have died.

“We are trying to emphasize the importance of being buried in a sacred space,” he said. “We made the cemetery be a beautiful destination; this is a wonderful place for people to come.”

Puttman is full of gratitude for the hours of work contributed by the cemetery committee and parish volunteers.

I’ve never been so happy in my life,” he said. “My mother and father, they were proud of this cemetery and they never had a chance to do much on it. This means so much to me.”

Northwest Catholic - November 2018

Michelle Bruno

Michelle Bruno is a member of Kent’s Holy Spirit Parish. Contact her at