Little Leon Nitzel was the first person ever to be buried in the St. Kunegunda Cemetery in Sugar Camp. He lived from 1897 to 1898 and even more than 115 years later, his small tombstone sparks a sense of sorrow.
Surrounding his grave are the burial places of other children. They are the offspring of a group of Polish immigrants who settled in Sugar Camp when it was known as Robbins. When these bereaved parents laid their children to rest here, they saw a beautiful place with the sparkling water of Mill Lake only a few short steps away and the newly built St. Kunegunda Church with its sturdy steeple keeping holy guard over the land.
As years passed, more people were laid to rest in this part of the cemetery. Some were marked by small stones, but others simply had a wooden cross or even only a mound of stones over their graves. As more people were buried, graves were built closer to the church and the little hill with the remains of some of Sugar Camp’s tiniest and earliest citizens went into disrepair. Trees overgrew the plot and the grass grew tall and tangled over the simple markers.
That always bothered parishioner Shirley Sowinski. “Over the years, there were people who would go back there and try and clean up this part of the cemetery,” she said. “But it became a big job as the land got more overgrown.”
Then in 2000, a declaration from the bishop went out to every church in the Diocese of Superior to select a parish project. That was the inspiration for the parishioners at St. Kunegunda to join forces and revitalize the back part of the cemetery. The majority of the landscaping work was done then and the cemetery has been tended ever since.
Just recently church members wanted to dress up this part of the cemetery even more and, in addition, see if they could find out more history about the people who were buried here. One parishoner, Irene Thorn already knew the history of one grave.
Irene, who over the years has done much research on the history of St. Kunegunda Church, also had a fervent desire to see the little lakeside cemetery cleaned up. Her sister, Mary Ann Kliss, died when she was 8 years old from a ruptured appendix, and is buried not far from Leon’s grave. “My mother told me the story of when she died,” said Irene. “My dad was driving the wagon into Rhinelander to get a doctor. When they got near town my mother, who was holding Mary Ann in her arms, told my father, ‘Mary Ann just died.'” Then they turned around and came back home.”
Just recently the little cemetery has gotten some further TLC from parishioners. Flowers were planted in a newly-built circular brick bed and a giant wooden cross, constructed by parishioners Darrell Hunter and Dave Hibbard, was erected. Al Sowinski, Shirley’s husband, and Mike Dart, an employee of Sowinski Farms, constructed 18 metal crosses to be placed in the cemetery to commemorate the people who were buried here whose graves may not have been marked. “We really don’t know how many people are buried here because some graves were only marked by a wooden cross and those disintegrated over the years,” Shirley said, “and some graves were only marked by a pile of stones.”
So the search continues to find out more about the early settlers of Robbins who passed away and are buried at St. Kunegunda. Shirley, Irene and other members of the church have hunted for years to find documentation of all the souls who are buried on the banks of Mill Lake, but none has been found. They are hoping anyone who has any information about this time in the history of St. Kunegunda will contact them. “We would really like to know if anyone has any relatives or friends buried here,” said Shirley. “We would like to honor those people.”
However, everyone in this part of the cemetery is going to be honored during a rededication ceremony that will be held late this summer. Shirley has invited the bishop of the diocese to attend. “We would feel so honored to have him come to this dedication,” she said. “It would really mean a lot to all the parishioners of this church.”
But for now, the work continues to be done on this beautiful and peaceful spot that holds the remains of passed souls. In fact, early last week, Shirley just finished planting some flowers in the new brick bed, but her sentiments about taking care of this ground have never dimmed. “I believe that to have respect for life,” she said, “you have to have respect for those who have passed before us.”
If anyone knows any history or has family or friends buried in this part of St. Kunegunda Cemetery, please call Shirley Sowinski at (715) 272-1190.