It would seem to be an unremarkable site in an off-the-beaten-path graveyard, but one Grand Rapids woman is fighting for the stone’s removal.
Pat Helms, who grew up in a devout Catholic family and came to the mining boom town as a teenager in the 1950s, says she believes her brother was sexually abused by the priest.
“It’s always bothered me to see that headstone,” she said. “To go and visit the cemetery, the way this man looms over my family, it makes me absolutely sick.”
Larry Beissel was one of the first altar boys at Stack’s Queen of Peace Church, which opened in 1955. After becoming disillusioned with the church, Helms says her brother conceded to her that he had been abused by the priest.
An elementary schoolteacher later in life, Beissel died in 1986 at the age of 42 after a long struggle with alcoholism. Stack officiated his funeral service, just a few months before his own death.
Beissel is buried in the Hoyt Lakes cemetery alongside his parents and another sister — just down the hill from Stack’s final resting place.
Helms has contacted officials with the Diocese of Duluth and the city of Hoyt Lakes, but has been unsuccessful in her attempts to have the stone removed. Now 74, she said she’s made it her mission.
“I just want that thing down,” she said. “He shouldn’t have a place of prominence anywhere.”
Verne Wagner, northern Minnesota director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said Helms’ story is emblematic of the long-lasting consequences of child sexual abuse on a family.
“There is a lot of pain that goes along with it,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many people end up going through divorces or committing suicide or dealing with anger and resentment. It’s a terrible thing for a family to endure.”
Family was close to priest
The Beissel family came to Hoyt Lakes in the mid-1950s when the city was taking shape as a company town for the new Erie Mining Co. taconite plant.
Helms’ father, Albert Beissel, a specially trained mining ventilation engineer, brought the family there from Ironwood, Mich. He quickly became a prominent member of the growing community, Helms recalled.
Thomas Stack arrived in Hoyt Lakes in August 1955. The Irish-born priest was ordained in 1944 and worked at parishes in Virginia and rural Duluth before he was sent to serve the dozens of Catholic families relocating to Hoyt Lakes.
The new congregation met in a cafeteria and a community center before the Queen of Peace Church opened its doors on Christmas Eve of 1958.
Helms recalled that her brother — two years her junior — became an altar boy and the family developed a close relationship with Stack. The priest would have dinner at their house nearly every Sunday, she said.
“My dad finally had the good job that he was entitled to and we had a nice home,” she said. “What Catholic family wouldn’t want to have their priest over for dinner every Sunday?”
Helms left Hoyt Lakes after graduating in 1960 to attend business school in the Twin Cities.
When she came home to visit a short time later, Helms said she was met by distraught parents who told her that her brother had abruptly quit being an altar boy. At one point, they had hoped he might enter the priesthood.
“They were really upset,” she recalled. “He wouldn’t tell them why he quit.”
Helms said her brother started drinking heavily and later acknowledged to her that he had been abused by Stack. She said he offered few details.
“It was the 1960s. People just didn’t talk about that kind of stuff,” she said. “It’s plagued me all these years.”
‘A horrible way to die’
Larry Beissel went on to earn education degrees from St. Cloud State University and forged a career as an elementary schoolteacher in Columbia Heights, Minn. He got married and had a daughter.
But he could never shake his struggles with alcohol, Helms said. Beissel ended up getting divorced and was fired from his job.
He died on Nov. 1, 1986, of acute hemorrhagic pancreatitis.
“He drank himself to death,” Helms said. “It had to be a horrible way to die.”
A funeral was planned in Hoyt Lakes. Stack, after serving stints at a number of other parishes in Northeastern Minnesota, was back at Queen of Peace.
When she learned that Stack would be the priest at the funeral service, Helms said she was distraught. She wanted to object, but was persuaded by her sisters to remain silent.
“My parents wouldn’t have believed it,” she said. “He had been close to my family all these years.”
Helms kept quiet and Stack officiated. The priest himself died less than four months later.
Diocese lists Stack as ‘credibly accused’
Still upset from the information her brother had shared with her, Helms wrote to the Diocese of Duluth after news of a widespread Catholic sex abuse scandal broke in the early 2000s.
Then-Bishop Dennis Schnurr responded, telling her that Stack’s personnel file did not contain any reports of sexual misconduct.
“The sad fact is that in the past not every incident of clergy sexual misconduct was reported to the bishop,” Schnurr wrote in the 2002 letter. “I can only offer my regrets if this was the case with Father Stack.”
Helms worked as a secretary, spending most of her professional career in the western U.S. It was only after she moved back to Minnesota in 2014, after her retirement and the death of her husband, that she began seeing news reports about child sexual abuse cases within the Duluth diocese.
Stack’s name was included on a list of priests considered “credibly accused” of abuse, released by the diocese in December 2013.
“I just broke down,” Helms said. “I couldn’t stop crying for the longest time.”
It’s unknown whether there are other victims, according to advocates and diocese officials.
Diocese spokesman Kyle Eller reiterated that Helms’ secondhand report was the only one on file, but noted that victims are still filing claims in the diocese’s bankruptcy process, which has a deadline of May 25.
“The reason Father Stack is on our list of credibly accused priests is this one allegation, made after both the victim and the accused were deceased,” Eller said. “Our records contain no other allegations against him.”
Patrick Wall, a former priest who now works as an advocate for abuse victims at St. Paul-based law firm Jeff Anderson and Associates, said it is typical that there are multiple victims. Advocates have been critical of methods used by the Catholic Church to determine whether a report is credible.
“It really depends on who the survivors are,” he said.
Searching for a solution
Wall said there is a precedent for removing the names of accused priests from buildings, plaques and scholarships throughout the country.
But he said he wasn’t aware of any case where there has been a request to remove a headstone from a cemetery.
“It probably has happened before, but I’ve never heard of it,” Wall said. “I’d hope that the diocese could come up with some kind of solution.”
While he said he sympathizes with Helms, Eller said the diocese simply lacks the authority to remove the stone.
“The cemetery where Father Stack is buried is not a Catholic cemetery, it’s a public one, so the church doesn’t have control over the monument,” he said.
The municipal cemetery has rules prohibiting above-the-ground stones, except in a small area set aside for clergy. In a city that is only 60 years old, Stack is the only one with that distinction.
Hoyt Lakes Mayor Mark Skelton said he would look into the matter and offer any assistance he could to Helms. But he noted that the city sells plots in the cemetery, and each stone is maintained by the individual owner.
It remains unclear who is responsible for Stack’s stone.
Eller said the diocese does not typically provide plots for deceased clergy, except at the diocese-owned Calvary Cemetery north of Duluth. Cemetery records were not immediately available from city officials.
Helms stressed that she’s not seeking to have the body exhumed, but said she simply wants some closure by having the stone brought down..
“I’m not a physical victim of that priest,” she said, “but I am a mental victim.”
Feelings endure for families
Helms contemplated her own end-of-life plans as she stood near her family’s plot in the snow-covered Hoyt Lakes Memorial Cemetery.
She said she was planning to be buried alongside her family, but she’s not so sure about that idea if Stack’s stone remains.
“I had toyed with this idea of bringing the whole family together again, but …” she said, trailing off as she looked up the hill.
Wagner said he has learned to cope with similar feelings. He said his mother is buried at Calvary, as is the priest who abused him as a child.
“This guy had all the power over me for a long time,” he said. “I had to let it go. I refuse to let these people have that power and control over me.”
In his experience working on abuse cases, Wall said he sees the effects of secondhand trauma.
“It’s like dropping a big rock in a pond,” he said. “The ripple effect is tremendous. One of the things I’m seeing is that the older the families of survivors get, the worse the trauma is. The memories become more raw. It’s like a tsunami of feelings for them.”
Helms seemed to agree, saying she wants to see a resolution in her lifetime.
“It’s been almost 60 years since this happened to my brother,” she said. “There’s still no settling of this horrible thing.”