If a man named Christian takes a job with Catholic cemeteries, you would expect he’d have a storied and lengthy career.
Mark A. Christian, 65, executive director of Catholic Cemeteries for the Diocese of Wilmington, steps into retirement at the end of June after 44 years.
When he says he’s done every job at the place, he isn’t exaggerating. He was a seminarian for the diocese when he began a seasonal job cutting grass. After leaving the seminary, he began working full-time as a field worker and never looked back.
“There is no job in the cemetery that I have not personally done myself,” Christian said.
An Elsmere kid raised in Corpus Christi parish, Christian remembers his mentors, both well-known and those who flew under the radar. He credits Msgr. Joseph Rebman, recently retired director of Catholic Cemeteries in the diocese, as well as the late John Merlini, Christian’s predecessor. He also remembers the blue collar guys, many with close ethnic ties who knew the meaning of earning a dollar for hard work. Christian remembers local men like backhoe operator Carl Koekkoek and Joe Facciolo, a mechanic.
“If I kept my nose clean, I’d be running the place some day,” Christian said Koekkoek told him.
“I worked my way up, from general maintenance to assistant superintendent to superintendent to executive director,” Christian said.
“I’ve enjoyed every facet of my career. There’s some days where the heat and the snow and the bitter cold would get you down, but all in all I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve done.”
Working in the burial business can wear you down, but Christian has mostly had an upbeat approach to his job.
“Since I’ve lost my parents and my brother, it’s taken on a new significance, but I’ve always had a great respect for what we do.”
“I think it was God’s way of getting me into a ministry where I could help people who are hurting. It’s an amazing parallel in my mind.”
He describes Msgr. Rebman as “a genius” and said he was a significant influence on his career. Both Christian and Msgr. Rebman have held roles with the national conference of Catholic cemeteries. Christian was a board member and past president. He is a founding member of the volunteer Delaware cemetery association and Delaware cemetery board.
“I’m pretty proud of that, the ministry is beyond just what I did for the diocese.”
He became an adult education student and graduated from then-Neumann College when he was 33-years-old.
“That’s part of the mentorship of Msgr. Rebman. He wanted me to go to night school.”
Christian also gives credit to former vicar general Msgr. Thomas Cini. He said he was most challenged in a good way by Bishop Michael Saltarelli.
“He was a builder. He wanted to expand cemeteries to the southern part of the diocese. He was a strong advocate for cemeteries.”
Christian has enjoyed his work, but admits it can sometimes be heartbreaking.
“I once buried an infant on Christmas Eve with no family present. With COVID, I’ve seen people lose both parents and not be able to be with them when they pass.”
Other tragedies include young people dying in auto accidents, which he says in the 1980s and ‘90s seemed to happen in succession every year. Christian wonders if those tragic incidents have become fewer as driving safety has become more prevalent.
“That’s heartbreaking,” he said of fatal wrecks involving young people. “The families never recover from that.”
Christian has worked under four bishops in his career. He’s scheduled to retire before the July 13 installation of Bishop-elect William Koenig, the 10th bishop of Wilmington.
He’s had a fair number of challenges. He was one of five cemetery employees who tested positive for COVID despite taking every precaution.
“I was sick. I couldn’t breathe.”
He recovered and was able to go back to work.
A single man, Christian said he’s looking forward to doing some traveling in his retirement and working on home improvement projects. Maybe take up some fishing. He also expects to work on a capital campaign for the Little Sisters of the Poor at Jeanne Jugan Residence in Newark.
“I’m going to enjoy life.”
“Working these past 44 years has been interesting, and some days have been adventures,” he said. “My moving on is an opportunity for someone else to have a turn.”