WRIGHTSTOWN — Vern Meulemans wasn’t looking for a job as a sexton back in 1991.
“Monica (his wife) and I were fine just cutting the grass at the cemeteries,” Meulemans said. “We were in our 50s and we’d been doing that for 13 years at that time.”
But when lifelong friend and fellow parishioner Maurice Lamers encouraged Meulemans to become sexton for two cemeteries in what is now St. Clare Parish, it was hard to say no.
“The only thing I remember Vern saying was that he made Maurice promise he’d be there to back him up just in case, and Maurice has done that,” Monica said. “Plus, I knew it would give Vern something to do when he wasn’t working, so it was a good thing.”
Now, 26 years later — and 14 years after officially retiring from his full-time job — Meulemans still dutifully fulfills his position as sexton for St. Paul Catholic Cemetery in Wrightstown and St. Patrick Catholic Cemetery in Snyderville, just west of Wrightstown. Each site encompasses about 4.5 acres.
St. Clare Parish formed in 2009 with the merger of St. Paul in Wrightstown, St. Mary in Greenleaf and St. Patrick in Askeaton. The parish also has cemeteries in Greenleaf and Morrison (sextons are John and Tracey Koltz), as well as Askeaton (sextons are Jerry and Donna Wall).
The 79-year-old Meulemans, a lifelong resident of Wrightstown, is the longest-tenured sexton in the parish.
“When I signed up, I knew I was in it for the long run,” said Meulemans, whose work is primarily on a volunteer basis. “A phrase I learned from watching my dad (the late Norbert Meulemans, a longtime trustee at the former St. Paul Parish) was, ‘Always do it the right way.’ My dad was an excellent farmer and someone who people could look up to. I try to do the same thing and do a good job with what I’m doing.”
Meulemans oversaw 31 burials (including seven cremation burials) over the past year at the two cemeteries. He estimates knowing off the top of his head more than 90 percent of the exact plot locations — of which there are several hundred total.
Some of his many responsibilities include general oversight of the cemeteries, record keeping, selling plots, marking off graves for burial, coordinating with the grave digger, arranging lawn cutters, and answering questions from decedents’ family or friends — who may ring the doorbell or call at a moment’s notice.
“Hardly a day goes by I don’t go out there to make sure everything looks right,” said Meulemans, who, depending on the time of year, may spend several hours per week on sexton duties (neither cemetery has winter burials). “I have a lot of pride in what I’m doing.”
“He’s very conscientious, no doubt about that,” added Monica.
Meulemans keeps the cemetery books at his home in a fireproof box; they never leave the residence. He also has two large cemetery maps with plot locations. In addition, cemetery records and maps are kept secure at the parish office.
“I always had a knack for doing bookwork when I was in school, and I had good penmanship, too,” Meulemans said. “So those come in handy when it comes to these books.”
Meulemans said Monica has been instrumental over the years in assisting him, and he also credits a “great group of people” involved with his cemetery committee. They include Gary Vander Heiden (who keeps the other set of cemetery books), Boyd Hartjes, Ken Vander Heiden, William Buechel, Ken Brown, Maurice Lamers and priest-administrator Fr. Brian Wideman.
Vern and Monica (who is 16 days younger than him) recently celebrated their 58th wedding anniversary. They were married at St. John Church in Little Chute, where Monica was born and raised. The Meulemans have nine children, 21 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
When he isn’t at the cemeteries, Meulemans enjoys gardening and rooting for the Green Bay Packers and Milwaukee Brewers. He also was an avid bowler for 53 years, with a top score of 290.
Although Meulemans enjoys serving as sexton, health issues are forcing him to think about passing the baton to someone else in the near future.
“Whenever I stop, it’s something I’ll miss because I like to do it,” Meulemans said. “I’ve always had an interest in our local cemeteries and their history. But until someone else comes along, I’ll handle things.”