PUEBLO • As Lucille Corsentino begins a driving tour of Roselawn Cemetery, she offers a question.
“Have you ever heard the statement from Benjamin Franklin?”
She pauses and then speaks slowly, savoring each word.
“One can tell the morals of a culture by the way they treat their dead.”
Franklin’s statement inspires Lucille, 78, and she hopes his wisdom will challenge others, too. She’s seen a venerable graveyard travel from beautiful to devastation to restoration. It’s all about the way we treat our dead.
On Feb. 26, 2009, Lucille went to Roselawn Cemetery to manicure the grave of her husband, Bob, in preparation for the anniversary of his death. Roselawn, founded in 1891, had been an essential piece of Pueblo’s pride, but on that day Lucille examined a cemetery in ruins.
“If you had been here in 2009, you would have been appalled,” she says. “Yes, appalled. You know what a gopher is?”
Well, yes. I did see “Caddyshack” a couple of times.
“Gophers are part of Pueblo ecology,” Lucille says, “but they certainly shouldn’t live here in our cemetery. I was disgusted. Yes, I was disgusted.”
Gophers ruled Roselawn. Maintenance was a mere rumor, and the cemetery’s finances a disaster. Lucille resolved to bring beauty and stability back to this wasteland, forming Concerned Citizens for Roselawn Cemetery.
As we cruise among the dead, her success surrounds us. We drive past a grinning exterminator, here to battle the still-pesky gophers. We drive past two diligent maintenance workers.
We drive past the grave of Aunt Eliza Boone, the former slave of Daniel Boone’s grandson. Aunt Eliza lived 34 years in Pueblo, then a frontier town on the edge of the Rockies.
“Good natured, honest and faithful, Aunt Liza’s memory will long be kept green,” the Pueblo Chieftain announced upon her death in 1893. Some said she was 86. Others believed she was 105.
Lucille shakes her head.
“When we found out she was buried here for 125 years in an unmarked grave, we said, ‘No, no, no. That’s not going to work. She’ll be remembered properly.’”
And she is. A gleaming gravestone adorns Aunt Liza’s resting place.
We drive past the grave of Monsignor James Hugh O’Neill, who was Army chaplain for 26 years. In December 1944, in the most violent days of World War II, forces led by Gen. George Patton were held up by persistent fog and rain. Patton ordered O’Neill, his chaplain, to pray for clear skies.
O’Neill declined. Weather, he told Patton, is God’s domain. Patton had his own view of God and issued his order again. O’Neill, under duress, composed what is known as the Patton Prayer, which was printed and distributed to hundreds of thousands of troops.
The prayer begins, “Almighty and most merciful father, we humbly beseech Thee and Thy great goodness, to restrain these immoderate rains, which we have had to contend. Grant us fair weather for battle.”
The skies cleared a week later, and Patton led the Allies to victory in the Battle of the Bulge.
In 1952, O’Neill retired from the Army and moved to Pueblo, where he lived 20 years until his death. He didn’t drive and spent days pedaling the streets of Colorado’s Steel City on his red bicycle.
In Lucille’s quest to rescue Roselawn, she found fellow crusaders. Lucille graduated with 511 classmates from Pueblo Central in 1959. Friday, the class celebrates its 60th homecoming, a three-day event. Every first Tuesday, 20 to 25 members of the class gather to eat pizza, socialize and plan projects that will improve Pueblo.
Saving Roselawn has served as a decade-long class project.
“They are go-getters,” Lucille says of the Class of 1959. “You better believe it. They get things done. You can’t believe how much they helped me.
“I’m the one who is out front, but you don’t do this without help. All of us have family buried out here.”
For years, Lucille watched Roselawn deteriorate while she hoped for a revival. In 2009, she quit hoping and started her relentless effort to eradicate the gophers and restore the beauty of this destination of the dead.
“All people have to do is sit back and be complacent and let the powers that be, be,” she says of the always lurking threat to our precious past.
The tour is almost complete as Lucille takes a look back at this vast park — once endangered, now thriving — where more than 62,000 rest. She smiles on this sunny, windy afternoon.
“Just think,” she says, “how much history would have been lost.”