Catholic Cemeteries restores historic family’s vault

Officials at St. Francis Cemetery and Mortuary in Phoenix cleaned up and fixed the Paolo Perazzo Vault that contains the bodies of seven extended family members. Fr. Chuck Kieffer, at left, blessed the family vault Feb. 19 in a private ceremony with five descendants in attendance. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)
Officials at St. Francis Cemetery and Mortuary in Phoenix cleaned up and fixed the Paolo Perazzo Vault that contains the bodies of seven extended family members. Fr. Chuck Kieffer, at left, blessed the family vault Feb. 19 in a private ceremony with five descendants in attendance. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

[dropcap type=”4″]A[/dropcap] longstanding piece of family history, one that traces back to the Valley’s early Catholic and business roots, now sports a restored finish and a forthcoming memorial plaque.

Officials at St. Francis Cemetery in Phoenix cleaned up and fixed the Paolo Perazzo Vault that contains the bodies of seven extended family members, including relatives of the Donofrio Company, known for the family candy and ice cream.

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St. Francis Cemetery

Founded 1897 by Order of St. Francis. Came under the Diocese of Phoenix just after the diocese was established in 1969. The cemetery sees some 720 burials per year across its 52 acres.

Info: (602) 267-1329

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Fr. Chuck Kieffer, pastor of nearby St. Theresa Parish, blessed the family vault Feb. 19 in a private ceremony with five descendants in attendance.

The blessing and the days that followed bridged a bit of history and ended generations of confusion regarding care of the family vault. It predates St. Francis Cemetery and was long considered a bit of an island left from when the Franciscans ran a cemetery on the same land. Living family members knew it was there, but lacked proof regarding responsibility of care.

“There were a lot of mysteries back then. People didn’t talk about the past. It was over,” said Joe Prewitt, the great-great-grandson of Paolo Perazzo.

History at the cemetery, state and family levels helped fill in the blanks. Perazzo emigrated from Livoggi, Italy, in 1883 and became an American citizen four years later, according to cemetery records. He lived at Sixth and Monroe streets where, steps away from St. Mary’s Basilica, he helped raise his wife’s three children as his own.

One relative became the first parishioner at St. Mary’s Basilica to pass away according to its records. Perazzo’s granddaughter, Barbara Jo Donofrio Prewitt, attended St. Mary’s grade school and high school, and became the school’s first homecoming queen. She was the eldest relative at the family mausoleum’s rededication.

St. Francis Cemetery handled the restoration. It was something that had long been on the minds of both the family and Fr. Kieffer. He often noticed the vault while at the cemetery for burials. The sight of its disrepair — damaged doors and busted windows — broke his heart.

“I’d come and see it and pray for the people inside,” Fr. Kieffer said.

Little did he know that their descendants, whose last names have changed through marriage, were once parishioners at St. Theresa. Their children went to the school in the 1990s.

Joe Prewitt, Barbara Jo’s son, credits the European tradition for passing on the faith.

“The people inside are pretty fascinating people because they give you a sense of what Phoenix was like at the turn of the century,” Prewitt said.

Perazzo is his great-great-grandfather. He disliked the automobile and Phoenix’s three remaining hitching posts in the 1920s were maintained for his use.

Prewitt noted how his relatives were imminently involved in building the Valley’s community. Francis Donofrio, Perazzo’s grandson, became a famous jurist and Superior Court judge. His brother Joe, was a famous restaurateur who became a Hall of Fame member of the Arizona Restaurant Association. Other family members excelled with the Donofrio Company, a business that included candy and ice cream.

“It was the place to eat,” Prewitt said.

Living relatives still hear stories about how their grandparents met at one of the stores or got engaged there. Even the state’s longest-serving legislator had a picture of Donofrio’s over her desk because she frequented there with her husband during legislative sessions.

Both the family and St. Francis Cemetery are pleased with the restoration of the private mausoleum.

“We not only preserved a piece of history, but we were able to connect with the family,” said Joe Lange, president and CEO of Catholic Cemeteries and Mortuaries for the Diocese of Phoenix. “That personal contact that we made was the most important. The relationship that we have with those who are living is important. Even though two or three generations removed, there’s still a bond.”

As for Perazzo descendants, they’re thrilled with the restoration. Prewitt grew up moving a lot. Once he settled in the Valley, he discovered deep roots he didn’t know he had.

“Particularly in the days of people having their ashes scattered all over the place [which is contradictory to the Church’s teaching], I find it comforting to be able to get in touch with the past and honor the people who have gotten us here,” Prewitt said. “It’s important for our children and grandchildren going forward that they have something that they can look at and know how we got here.”