A ministry helping grieving families

By Joe Pisani

Jenine Berardesca, Family Services Director for Catholic Cemeteries, sees her work as a ministry for people who have lost loved ones.

Last year, she began the Tree of Remembrance celebration at St. Mary/Putnam Cemetery in Greenwich, and several hundred people showed up to put photos of their deceased family members and friends on a 10-foot-tall spruce.

But Berardesca’s work goes beyond providing services and assistance to families who are grieving. It also involves her personal prayers.

“I realized very early in my career while driving through the cemetery, that monuments became reminders of the families I had come to know and care about,” she says. “I would ride past and found myself asking God to bless them or comfort them. My prayers were nothing elaborate, just short and sweet heartfelt words to God. Simple prayers, which over the years have become part of my everyday prayer life.”

Several years ago, while attending the All Souls Mass at St Mary/Putnam, she realized how simple it would be to include prayers for souls in purgatory. “Now, I make sure that I do,” she says. “If I don’t have a specific name to pray for, I pray by cemetery section. I don’t have a long time to pray, but fortunately I pass a lot of sections in my work.”

Her approach is simple. “When someone comes to your mind, consider it an invitation from the Holy Spirit to say a little prayer for them,” she says. “God will hear you. You don’t need a monument. Anything can be a reminder — a billboard, a song, a flower — and I highly recommend it.”

At Catholic Cemeteries of the Diocese of Bridgeport, Jenine is not alone in her approach to work.

She is joined by Jean Leitz, whose mother Ann died a little over a year ago. For many months, Jean was her 24/7 caregiver after she suffered a stroke. Her mother was an inspiration in Jean’s work at St. Peter Cemetery in Danbury, where as a Footstone Specialist, she takes great pride in making the cemetery look the best it can be for families who have loved ones buried there.

When she was alive, her mother taught Jean the importance of honoring their family plot, which has six graves — with one remaining for Leitz.

“I always took pride in our family plot and tried hard to make the area look good,” she says. “I learned that from my mom. She set a wonderful example. She took care of my dad when he was alive … and when he died.”

Leitz extends that same care and concern to all the graves in St. Peter’s.

“Working in the cemetery, I can show my love and respect to my mom and my dad Alfred,” she said. “Not everyone is blessed to have visitors. Some [of the deceased] have no one to visit, and I take pride in caring for their individual stones — as if their family members were present. When I make things look nice that’s me expressing my care for everyone buried there, and for their families, even though I might not meet them.

Leitz assists with burials in the field and in the mausoleums, but her specialty is caring for foot stones, which can sometimes sink in the ground or get covered with grass and need to be cleaned and lifted.

“I’m learning so much from my boss Rich and my coworker Vito, who have been very supportive,” she says. “I truly enjoy my job and love coming to work every day. After a long hard day’s work, I can look out and see the fruits of my labor.”

Her colleague Johanna Ordonez believes it was God’s providence that led to her job as a Family Advisor at St. Peter Cemetery. After 18 years working as a pharmacy technician, she left Walgreen’s, and that very same day, a priest at St. Peter Church told her about an opening at the cemetery. Although the work is totally different from her previous job, it lets her do what is most important to her — help people who are dealing with a tragedy.

“God put me here for a reason, the Colombia native said. “I never thought before what it would be like working in a cemetery, but when you work here, you meet families that need your help. It is a very important job. It is a ministry.”

Ordonez is always available to assist families with filling out paperwork and helping them make decisions on what she says is often “the worst day of their lives, when they just lost their mom, their dad, a brother or sister or child.”

“My first family was a young couple who just lost a baby,” she sadly recalls. It was very difficult, but she assisted them, offered consolation and prayed for them. Sometimes family members are upset because their belief in God can be shaken after losing a loved one, she said.

Her Catholic faith is fundamental to Ordonez. She has volunteered at her parish for more than 18 years, and her husband Jorge is studying for the permanent diaconate. She is also a member of a prayer group that meets Monday nights, and she uses it as an opportunity to pray for people who have died, along with their families.

In addition, she often finds herself explaining the importance of Catholic funeral rites to her friends and people she meets. (For more information, visit )

“Every day we try to do our best,” Ordonez says. “When people come through that door, I introduce myself, and they become part of my family. I know why God put me in this place.”