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St. Mary's confirmation students cleaned the grave markers at Oak Knoll Cemetery north of Willmar

Area groups, including confirmation students at St. Mary's Catholic Church, the Kandiyohi County Historical Society "Thursday Crew," AIM members and Willmar High School cross country skiers, have

A view of the line of gravestones in the rows at Oak Knoll Cemetery.
A view of the line of gravestones in the rows at Oak Knoll Cemetery, north of Willmar, during cleanup efforts at the cemetery on Oct. 26, 2022.
Donna Middleton / West Central Tribune
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WILLMAR — Julie Neubauer of Lake Lillian, has been writing a history of the Willmar Regional Treatment Center for the Kandiyohi County Historical Society newsletter. The last piece of her research was about what happened to all the people that died. Many had been abandoned to the state, and lived their entire lives at the state hospital.

She found records for the state hospital cemetery, which has been renamed Oak Knoll Cemetery, located northwest of the state hospital campus.

Students from St. Mary’s confirmation class cleaned the markers in the Catholic section of Oak Knoll Cemetery, north of Willmar on Oct. 26, 2022.
Students from St. Mary’s confirmation class cleaned the markers in the Catholic section of Oak Knoll Cemetery, north of Willmar on Oct. 26, 2022.
Donna Middleton / West Central Tribune

The burial plots originally just had a number on them. The group “Remembering with Dignity” was granted funds from the state legislature in 1997, and began to install foot markers with names.

The treatment center patients were buried by religion — Catholics in one section and Protestants in another. In 2003, a Russian Jewish lady, who had been placed in a mental institution at age 14 and later transferred to Willmar, died and was buried by herself up by the east fence.

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

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A student using a shovel to clear the overgrown grass from a grave marker. Students from St. Mary’s confirmation class cleaned the markers in the Catholic section of Oak Knoll Cemetery, north of Willmar on Oct. 26, 2022.
A St. Mary's Catholic Church confirmation student uses a shovel to clear the overgrown grass from a grave marker at the Oak Knoll Cemetery north of Willmar on Oct. 26, 2022.
Donna Middleton / West Central Tribune

The “Thursday Crew” from the Historical Society cleared two fencelines. Members of AIM cleared another fenceline and the Willmar High School cross country ski team cleared the last fenceline.

Neubauer then approached St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Willmar to see if confirmation students would be able to help clean the overgrown foot markers. The church rented portable lights and, on Oct. 26, the students cleaned five rows in the Catholic part. They dug out the grass that had overgrown the markers, and cleaned away the dirt.

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

Related Topics: WILLMARMINNESOTAHISTORY
Donna Middleton started working at the West Central Tribune in 1975 and has been the news assistant since 1992. She compiles the arts, health, farm and community page calendars, as well as rewrites and works on the special sections.
She can be contacted at dmiddleton@wctrib.com or phone 320-214-4341.
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