By Betty Bourgault

My desire to adopt a grave at the Citizen’s Cemetery in Prescott and to become its caretaker led to the solution of a century-old mystery and to my learning of a most remarkable young man who served our community as an Assistant Pastor at Sacred Heart Church before his untimely death.

Father Edmund Claessen was born in Belgium in 1876 and graduated from the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, where he was said to be a brilliant scholar.  He arrived in Prescott in 1900 at age 24 to begin serving the local church.

Father Claessen was not only the Assistant Pastor to Father Alfred Quetu at Sacred Heart Church on Marina Street, but he was also a general visiting missionary to the towns of Jerome, Congress and Octave along with other towns and camps.  It was reported that he travelled by rail, horse, stage, and by foot.

Records show that he performed his first baptism in Arizona on November 25, 1900 in Jerome and his last baptism in May of 1902.  Father Claessen succumbed to typhoid fever on Wednesday, June 18, 1902, after being a patient for six weeks at Mercy Hospital.  He was just 26 years old.  His sickness is said to have been caused by “too much exposure, consequent upon his zeal in visiting his various missions which kept him almost constantly travelling.”

Funeral services for Father Claessen were held on Friday, June 20, 1902 with a requiem high Mass.  The celebrant was Father Novatus Benzing, O.F.M., of Phoenix.  Father Thomas M. Connelly of Winslow gave an emotional, moving sermon which brought the entire audience and himself to tears.  The funeral cortege to the burial grounds was one of the longest ever seen in the City of Prescott.

When Father Claessen’s name appeared on the Citizens’ Cemetery Adopt-A-Grave list, it stated only that he was Assistant Pastor at Sacred Heart Church.  Surprisingly he did not have a plot or site number nor did he have a headstone.  Nobody knew exactly where he was buried.

Over the years, there have been numerous stories told about Father Claessen, starting with the legend that he was buried at his own request under the altar at the old Sacred Heart Church.

Because of this tale and before the church could be turned over to the Prescott Fine Arts Association, the church sanctuary had to be desanctified.  On September 19, 1969, Father Francis J. Pyka, pastor of Sacred Heart, filed for a Disinterment-Reinterment permit through the State of Arizona.  The Ruffner Funeral Home was hired to do the excavation and inspection of the site for any remains of Father Claessen.  Noevidence of his remains was found.

We now know that Father Claessen was indeed buried in Citizens’ Cemetery, but where in the cemetery?  According to an article in the Arizona Republican dated June 24, 1902, describing the elaborate funeral of Father Claessen, it was stated that he is buried besidethe grave of Reverend Michael Murphy, an Irish priest who was the first Catholic priest and pastor assigned to Prescott.

The following remarks found in various newspaper clippings illustrate how others viewed Father Claessen.  He is described as being “devoted to the cause of religion and was a favorite, not only with the Catholics, but all the people that knew him.  He was gentle, kind and loved by all for his splendid traits of character.”  “He was one of the most earnest workers, and in him, they saw a real missionary.”  He was honored and deeply beloved in our community and this was demonstrated by a tribute that took place fifteen months after his death.

On Wednesday, September 16, 1903, a dedication and unveiling of a beautiful monument in memory of Father Claessen, took place at Sacred Heart Church.  Father George Juillard and his assistant Michael Dumarest of Gallup, New Mexico took part in the dedication as Father Julliard made the memorial address.  The memorial service was well attended by a large number of priests and friends of the deceased priest. The plaque on the monument reads as follows:

IN MEMORIAM
REV. EDMOND CLAESSEN
Died on Duty June 18th, 1902
R.I.P.

The question remains: Where is the monument today?  If anyone has any information or pictures of Father Claessen or the monument in their old family photo albums we would love to see them.  You may contact me through the Yavapai Cemetery Association at 928-713-8807.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit ideas for articles to dayspastprescott@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at dayspastprescott@gmail.com for information.