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An unusual family reunion City official and cemetery caretaker solve mystery of ‘missing grave’

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Nonagenarian Frances Tarantino just wanted to know where her father was buried before she dies.

Mrs. Tarantino, 95, who lives just south of Baltimore, was only 4 when her father, Jerome Moletto, died after experiencing complications from pneumonia in 1922.

She knew approximately where his unmarked grave was in the historical Arsenal Street Cemetery, but she and her family hadn’t been able to figure out exactly where he was laid to rest more than 90 years ago.

Mrs. Tarantino’s daughter, Raeann T. Wuestman, granddaughter Darlene A. Striano and other relatives have wanted to discover where he was buried so they could finally mark the grave with a headstone.

“My grandmother always wanted to give him a Father’s Day present,” Mrs. Striano said, referring to the grave marker.

Last weekend, the family members traveled to Watertown from their homes in Long Island, Connecticut, New Jersey and Maryland so they could finally see Mr. Moletto’s grave and place a monument there.

The marble stone simply lets cemetery visitors know that Mr. Moletto was born on March 16, 1877, and died on March 11, 1922. The grave marker sits in front of an iron cross, one of many that adorn graves in the Italian and Catholic section of the city-owned cemetery.

On Saturday, family members stood in a cold rain to attend a memorial service dedicating the monument to Mr. Moletto — a railroad worker who came to America from Italy when he was just a child more than a century ago.

Still, it was a joyous occasion for the family — they finally knew where he was laid to rest.

Now frail and no longer able to travel, Mrs. Tarantino could not attend the family event. Instead, the family took photos of the dedication and their visit to Watertown.

“This is so special for my mother,” said Mrs. Wuestman, warming up with some tea in a nearby diner after the memorial service.

On a trip to the Thousand Islands 17 years ago, Robin Musante, one of Mrs. Striano’s three cousins who attended Saturday’s memorial service, visited the cemetery in search of Mr. Moletto’s grave. In those days, the cemetery was in rough shape, the majority of the graves overgrown with weeds and grass and the headstones in need of repair, she recalled.

She could not find it.

“It was very sad and depressing,” the cousin said, recalling that she used a tree and a large monument to try to pinpoint her grandfather’s grave.

Now, Mr. Moletto’s grave has been given a makeover. Cemetery caretaker Kathy T. Plante-Hunt put flowers at the grave, replaced weeds with mulch and placed small stones around it in preparation for Saturday’s memorial service.

But locating the correct gravesite was no easy matter. As it turned out, it was City Manager Sharon A. Addison who started the last and successful search for Mr. Moletto’s final resting place. Before Ms. Addison moved to Watertown in the summer of 2012, she and Mrs. Striano worked together at the National Security Agency at Fort George C. Meade, Md. The city manager was Mrs. Striano’s mentor and good friend.

Prior to Ms. Addison’s move to the north country, Mrs. Striano arranged for her to meet her grandmother, who asked whether the newly hired city manager could help in the search for her father’s burial site. Ms. Addison promised she would check into the grave dilemma once she got to Watertown.

Mrs. Striano’s grandmother also made a simple request.

“If you pass by the cemetery, blow a kiss to my papa,” Mrs. Tarantino said.

Mrs. Striano was astounded that Ms. Addison was moving to the same community where her great-grandfather is buried.

“Think about the statistical improbabilities of all this involving Watertown and my family,” she said.

Soon after Ms. Addison arrived, Mrs. Plante-Hunt met with the city manager to talk about her work in the Arsenal Street Cemetery. The city manager quickly realized she was talking about the same cemetery that Mr. Moletto was buried in, so she opened her desk drawer and pulled out a letter from Mrs. Tarantino about the burial site. She shared it with Mrs. Plante-Hunt.

Although she didn’t have a lot of information from the family, Mrs. Plante-Hunt went right to work on the mystery.

Remember, there was no headstone with a name to look for, she said.

“I wasn’t going to leave one stone unturned,” she said.

The family sent photos and a map of where Mr. Moletto might be buried. Mrs. Plante-Hunt also was told that an iron cross marked the grave. But that didn’t help much, since many of the graves in that section had iron crosses.

An iron cross was first placed on Mr. Moletto’s grave by his co-workers at the railroad where he worked. They had found him unconscious in the boiler room after he had failed to clock out at the end of the day, family members said. He was rushed to the hospital, where he died two weeks later.

After doing further research, Mrs. Plante-Hunt learned that the original cross went missing, probably stolen by vandals. Friends of the family had replaced it with a handmade cross that did not resemble any other crosses at the cemetery.

The unique cross was the clue that finally put the puzzle together, Mrs. Plante-Hunt said. With that last bit of information, she was able to find it and told the family about her discovery.

“We all worked together and it all worked out,” she said, noting she repaired the rusty cross and repainted it black.

As it turned out, Mr. Moletto’s grave is just 50 yards away from where Mrs. Tarantino and her seven siblings lived with their widowed mother for about 15 years. Across the street from the cemetery, at 826 Arsenal St., her childhood house recently was remodeled and is up for sale.

Mrs. Striano noted the irony that the house was so close to his grave, but it took decades to solve the mystery.

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