The hardest thing Mina Carroll has ever had to do was lay her deceased child to rest.
Now she may have to do it all over again, thanks to dog walkers who, she says, let their pets use Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery “as a toilet.” Carroll’s daughter, Philomena Stendardo, who died of a rare form of pediatric brain cancer, was buried at Holy Redeemer last July.
“There have been feces near my daughter’s grave. I’ve seen dogs urinate against headstones,” says Carroll, 42, mom to Philomena, who was just 8 when she died July 23.
“I am physically sick over it,” says Carroll. “I may have to exhume Phil and move her somewhere else to give her the respect she deserves. Burying her once was far too much for my family. I can’t believe we even have to consider this.”
Me neither. Is this a battle between obsessed dog owners who treat their pets as children vs. the anguish over the loss of a real child? I’m not sure, but I know it’s fueled on both sides by heartbreaking grief for Philomena, a sunbeam of a kid everyone called “Bean.”
When Bean was diagnosed in September of 2016, thousands of residents from the river wards rallied around the dimpled second grader and her Port Richmond family (which, besides Carroll, includes dad Mark Stendardo, 44, and brother Mark, 10).
The family’s neighborhood roots run three generations deep. Life revolves around worship at St. George Parish and sports at Shissler Rec Center in Fishtown, where Bean played basketball, soccer, and softball. Stendardo is a local public adjuster and Carroll once ran a spinning studio in Fishtown.
“We’ve been here so long, we know everybody and everybody knows us,” says Stendardo.
Bean’s deadly diagnosis of diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma was a gut punch to all of them. Their response – with massive public prayer vigils and solicitations of support from the Eagles, Sixers, and even Beyoncé, who gave a shout-out to Bean during a concert – was a profoundly moving portrait of a community at its best.
Though all that love could not save Bean, it has continued to comfort her family.
So had regular visits to Holy Redeemer. The long, skinny cemetery is wedged between I-95 and Richmond Street, bordered by Croyden and Orthodox. Its graceful white oaks create a rare, canopied oasis in a dense rowhouse neighborhood abutted by heavy industry and assaulted by the highway’s 24/7 roar.
Carroll was aghast when she visited Holy Redeemer last month and saw dog poop on a plot near Bean’s. She posted a screed about it on Facebook, followed by videos of her furious confrontations with dog walkers that she would encounter during her thrice-weekly visits to her daughter’s grave.
“Why don’t I follow you home and sh– on your bed!” she screams at one offender.
“My daughter is buried here!” she scolds another. “Have some respect!”
Carroll and Stendardo are themselves dog lovers. But, says Carroll, “the rules are the rules.”
Holy Redeemer, operated by Redemptorist Cemeteries in Baltimore, forbids dogs on the property, which serves as “a peaceful and sacred site of beauty” that reflects “respect for the human person, belief in the resurrection of the body and hope of Eternal Life.”
The prohibition is rarely enforced at Holy Redeemer. When Carroll complained about it to a caretaker, she said, she was made to feel that she was the problem, not the dogs.
Redemptorist’s Deacon Bruce Hultquist says the company is “trying to do whatever we can to bring peace and comfort” to Bean’s family. He wouldn’t say whether that would include actually enforcing its own rules, which also prohibit activities like eating, drinking, and biking – none of which seem to be policed, either.
Other graveyards are not as strict. Historic Laurel Hill Cemetery, for example, not only welcomes canines (they must be leashed, in accordance with city law) but provides doggy-bag stations on its two sprawling sites.
“We’re a cemetery but we’re also an open space,” says president and CEO Nancy Goldenberg. “So we allow people to picnic, bike-ride, jog, and hike. We think of ourselves as a park as well as a resting place for our loved ones.”
The result is lovely comportment among visitors, she says. After a cemetery-sponsored movie night last summer, which attracted almost a thousand people, “you could pick up with just one hand the trash that was left behind.”
Residents in the river wards feel a similar belonging at Holy Redeemer, where hundreds of their ancestors are buried. Kids learn to bike there, seniors stroll its quiet walkways, and in-the-know locals use its unmarked through-street to exit gridlocked Richmond Street during rush hour.
And, yes, dog owners walk their mutts there, concedes says Patty-Pat Kozlowski, Republican candidate for state rep in the 177th District and former “dog czar” in the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation.
“It’s a tradition. Most dog owners are very respectful,” Kozlowski says. “But it goes without saying that no dog should ever be off-leash.”
A handful of locals told me they feel put off by Carroll and Stendardo’s push for enforcement of a prohibition that even Holy Redeemer doesn’t seem to think is necessary. But they’re loath to criticize a grieving family.
Mia Hylan, director of constituent services for State Rep. John Taylor, thinks a few new dog parks would ease everyone’s pain. PennDot, she says, owns a few slivers of open space in the area that it will designate as dog parks if volunteers will run them. Hylan and City Councilman Bobby Henon are working on that now.
But old habits die hard. The only way to end the ingrained one at Holy Redeemer is to enforce the rule that made Bean’s family feel OK about choosing it in the first place.
“If we’d known Holy Redeemer was used as a dog park,” says Stendardo, “we never would have buried our daughter there.”