On Feb. 19, 1935, 19-year-old Helen Tesluk died at the Oregon Fairview Home, an institution for people with disabilities.

A Catholic from Northeast Portland, the daughter of an immigrant kitchen worker, she suffered from severe epilepsy. Treatments then were sparse. Her parents, who had arrived in Oregon in 1912 from Ukraine via Canada, had died years before. After Helen’s body was cremated according to state custom, no one came to the Salem asylum to claim the remains — until now.

The discovery

After finding out about his Aunt Helen in family genealogical research, John Tesler brought her ashes from Oregon State Hospital in Salem to Mount Calvary Cemetery in Southwest Portland. On All Souls Day, Nov. 2, she was laid to rest in a crypt high on the hillside. A niche in the St. Simon hallway is set aside for those who cannot afford to pay.

Tesler, along with wife Rubye and granddaughters Rachel and Amelia Tesler, arrived on a cold, windy afternoon as Father John Henderson conducted a prayer service for Helen and two others whose remains had just been placed reverently in the crypt.

“It is our responsibility to reach out to every brother and sister, not only at their birth, but at their death,” Father Henderson said. “God is embracing them and telling them they are at peace.”

There are no names chiseled in stone, but a prayer for the dead is inscribed: “Eternal rest grant unto them O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.”

Tesler, whose father Americanized the family name, chose Mount Calvary because he knew that his grandparents are buried there, as is an uncle who died in 1918 at age 8. The act was a 72-year-old man’s effort at family unity. His aunt died a decade before he was born.

Oregon State Hospital houses roughly 3,500 unclaimed cremated bodies in copper canisters. With a pavilion, including names, the state has memorialized the dead from its institutions.

First anger, then peace

When he first discovered his aunt, Tesler felt angry that her remains had been abandoned. But he has come to peace, figuring her siblings were out of reach and out of money during the Great Depression.

“I’m not going to say it was a wrong,” said Tesler. “But it was unfinished business. Very sad, too. I wanted to give her a proper resting place.”

No photos of Helen exist. Tesler’s father, who was 11 when his younger sister was sent to Fairview, told family only that he had a sister who died “at the state hospital.”

Tesler wants his nine grandchildren to know the family history with more specifics.

Father Henderson, pastor of St. Anthony Parish in Tigard, says parish priests regularly meet families who cannot afford to bury their dead. He has seen about five such cases in the past four years, including families who lost babies at birth.

“As a Catholic cemetery, we have a responsibility to reach out to all our indigent brothers and sisters,” Father Henderson said in an interview before the ceremony. “We have to be there for the poor. We want everybody to have a decent burial. I find that a very serious responsibility.”

Room for several hundred

The St. Simon crypt, which just started operation, has room for cremated remains of several hundred people. The cemetery will keep meticulous records of who has been placed there.

“There are a lot of folks who keep cremated remains at home or who don’t have resources to have them placed,” said Tim Corbett, director of Archdiocese of Portland cemeteries. “We want to offer them a respectful place to rest in a Catholic cemetery, which is the church’s teaching.”

Families who want to use the St. Simon crypt must apply and qualify on financial need. The person whose remains are being placed must be Catholic or the family member of a Catholic.

If a family later wants to purchase an individual memorial, cremated remains can be removed from the St. Simon crypt.

edl@catholicsentinel.org