Ensuring Catholic Cemeteries fulfill their mission

FAIRFIELD—From the time he was a student at Northwestern University in Chicago, Bill Damm has loved history, and in later years, he even embarked on a project to write an account of his father’s service in the Merchant Marines during World War II.

It is this compelling curiosity of a self-proclaimed “history buff” that has prompted him to spend time in cemeteries, examining graves of veterans and the children who perished during the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1917.

So it’s no small coincidence that he was recently named treasurer of the board of the Catholic Cemeteries of the Diocese of Bridgeport LLC.

“I am a big history buff and cemeteries have a lot of history,” he says. “I also find them to be peaceful places to go and reflect. They have a religious significance as well.”

Bill, who has a master’s in business from Harvard Business School, is a senior finance and human resources executive with experience in financial planning, analysis, budgeting and management reporting. Before becoming an independent compensation consultant, he was senior director of compensation for News America Marketing, a division of News Corp.

He and his wife Laura have three children and belong to St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Fairfield.

Several years ago, Bill met Anne McCrory, the chief legal and real estate officer of the Diocese of Bridgeport at a Lauralton Hall event, and the discussion turned to cemeteries.

“We were talking about the Church and she mentioned cemeteries, and I told her about my interest in them,” he recalled. “And she said, ‘I’ve got the job for you.’” Ensuring Catholic Cemeteries fulfill their mission

From that encounter, he was invited by Bishop Frank J. Caggiano to join an advisory board for Catholic Cemeteries, and this past July, a separate LLC was established, and the advisory board was reconstituted as a managing board. Bill became treasurer with Deacon Patrick Toole, the diocese’s episcopal delegate for administration, as chairman.

Dean Gestal of Greenwich is the director of Catholic Cemeteries, a position he took at the request of Bishop Caggiano after retiring from a successful Wall Street career and working with start-ups in the world.

“Bishop Frank wanted the cemeteries to be managed in a more professional and businesslike way without losing sight of the religious mission,” Bill said. “He picked Dean, and the middle of last year, the next step was to carve the cemeteries out into a separate legal entity. Bylaws were drawn up, and we established an executive committee on the board.”

He said the board’s job is to advocate and ensure there are adequate controls, along with internal business controls, including regular audits.

“We need to make sure that the financial management of the cemeteries is sound,” he said. “In addition, we have to fulfill our mission and serve the needs of Catholics in Fairfield County and make the best possible final resting place for people who are interred. We have to ensure that financial stability and pastoral needs are fulfilled. Our parishes are important stakeholders.”

The board is committed to a high level of service, he says.

“People want to know when they bury their loves ones in a Catholic cemetery that the grounds are being maintained, and there are good business practices,” he says. “We have a lot of work to do, but we believe we have the right folks in place, and we are building a professional and competent management team to oversee the cemeteries.”

He also emphasizes the necessity for pre-need planning rather than at-need planning. That way there is no confusion or urgency when a loved one dies.

Of course, his fascination and love of cemeteries is still a motivating factor for him.

“To me, they are really important places to go and learn, to understand your own past and the history of the area,” he says. “It is a great place to connect with those who have gone before us.”

When he and Laura visited his hometown of Chicago recently, they went to St. Mary Catholic Cemetery.

“The Archdiocese of Chicago has some gorgeous cemeteries, and it was so cool to see where my grandparents and great-grandparents are buried.”

Both of his parents are buried in a military cemetery 50 miles south of the city.

Laura’s parents were laid to rest in a cemetery in New Brunswick, NJ, with other family members, and on occasion, he was wandered through the monuments to look at the graves of Civil War dead and the children who died during the Spanish Flu pandemic…and even the section where the family of the founders of Johnson & Johnson are buried.

“You walk around, and the more you look, the more you learn,” he says.