Regina man restores veterans’ long neglected rural grave site

File photo. Among the 14 marked headstones at the cemetery near Avonlea, Sask., Dan Kirkpatrick found that of Pte. Lazar Diminyatz. John Woods / The Canadian Press

Back in March in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dan Kirkpatrick used directives for physical distancing to fulfil another directive: Remembering the soldiers who fought and died for Canada.

He turned his attention to the gravesite of a First World War veteran, located in an overgrown, badger-infested cemetery off of a dirt road near Avonlea, Sask.

“We’re in this country, and like in every other one, we promise to remember the soldiers, right? This guy is sitting there long since forgotten and it was just a sad thing to see,” Kirkpatrick said.

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Since mid-March, he made the 78-kilometre drive from Regina spending two to three hours every weekend restoring the seemingly forgotten site, the Stanko Cemetery.

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“I thought to at least give this man some respect. And why not the rest of it while we’re at it?” he said of his initial plan.

Among the 14 marked headstones at the cemetery, he found that of Pte. Lazar Diminyatz.

Born in Serbia in 1898, Diminyatz had a short life as a Canadian immigrant: He spent the last two years of it fighting in the First World War for his family’s newly adopted country.

He died in 1917, not even 20 years old, two years after enlisting with the armed forces. His parents Nicola and Piaolo lived in the Rouleau area.

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Kirkpatrick, 60, had grown up in the Avonlea area, about 20 kilometres away from the cemetery. He said he’d always heard of it being nearby. He started mulling a plan to restore it in late 2019, knowing how badly overgrown it was.

His first attempt at clearing out the thick brush forced him to adjust: The ground was so uneven that using any sort of lawnmower (stand-up or sit-down) was impossible.

“I made some modifications to my whipper-snipper and went at it little by little. Over the course of a few weekends, and approximately 21 hours, the initial cleanup was done,” he said. He could then see “how rough” it was.

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He used about 90 pails of dirt to fill in all the badger holes; he then started hauling dirt to the cemetery from Regina to level out the ground.

That allowed him to mow the grass and restore the plots around each headstone, which included adding gravel and cleaning off concrete rectangles used to mark the spots of some coffins.

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It was a weekly affair for Kirkpatrick, right up to the middle of October.

For the unmarked graves he found at the site, he found some old fir, cut it into appropriate headstones and marked off the spots.

The cemetery is now clear and walkable with the headstones marked out, Diminyatz’s among them.

Kirkpatrick said he doesn’t want to be regarded as a hero; cleaning up the sight was simply “the right thing to do.”

“Give this man some recognition: He immigrated to this country and then fought for this country and died shortly later. He’s been gone 100 years, but we’re not supposed to forget.”

Pte. Lazar Diminyatz served as an infantryman with the 229th division of the Quebec regiment. He died on May 30, 1917.

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Kirkpatrick thinks the neglect the Stanko Cemetery suffered is abnormal.

“Most of the graveyards everywhere I travel around Saskatchewan, they’re always taken care of. It’s just this particular one fell through the cracks somehow.”

Depending how highway conditions are after this weekend’s blizzard, he plans to pay his respects to Diminyatz on Remembrance Day and lay a wreath at his headstone.

Kirkpatrick says he’ll continue his mission as the groundskeeper of the cemetery when the snow melts in the spring.

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