A brief historical note on the Hart Island
annual remembrance rite
offered for all buried in Potter's Field
Once a year a prayer group from the Bronx mainland travels to the City Island to board the ferry to Hart Island to participate in a service of remembrance for all buried in Potter's Field. This is a brief historical note on the annual observance. In the above photo from the June 2000 visit, NYC DOC Capt. Eugene Ruppert addresses some of the group enroute while the priest looks meditatively across the waters.

Jenny Botero of St. Benedict's parish and Sister Anne Tubman of St. Lucy's Center, in northeastern Bronx, were on their way from a spiritual retreat held at Villa Maria in Sloatsburg, N.Y., in 1991 when the idea of offering an annual mass of remembrance at Potter's Field arose.

The visitors stroll along the roadway as Capt. Ruppert explains to newer members of the group some of the Hart Island landmarks such as a smoke stack of the power plant that once generated electricity to run the industrial shops' machinery.

The retreat had been given by Jesuit Father Norris Clarke and Sister Anne. She is a member of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Mary whose motto in Latin translates as "That they may have Life." She also is founder of the Heart of Mary Healing Ministry.

Entitled "Healing Our Family Tree," the retreat had addressed such themes as the personal need of individuals to identify and rectify the negative influences in their and their loved ones' lives.

Sister Anne and Mrs. Botero's post-retreat discussion turned to how deceased family members should be included in the spiritual healing process to make an entire family whole again.

As the liturgy begins, Capt. Ruppert extends the prayer group's invitation to work crew inmates to take part if they wish to do so.

"It was then that we planned to seek holding a mass right in the City Cemtery," Sister Anne recalled.

"We chose Ascension Day because that's the Feast celebrating Our Lord going up into Heaven. We regard this annual mass as an encounter of love with Jesus who embraces our beloved dead."

Before and after the mass, the Ascension Day 2000 group visited various points of interest on the island, including the children's burial area and the abandoned chapel whose history dates back to the 1890s.

"The babies' section always affects members of the group profoundly," Sister Anne observed. "So does the abandoned church where we realize that so many prayers were lift up from the island for more than a century." She noted that on nearby City Island, St. Mary Star of the Sea parish holds masses regularly throughout the year for the deceased in Potter's Field.

Some of the work crew inmates accept the prayer group's invitation to join the memorial service.

Since their first Potter's Field mass of remembrance, the annual observance has expanded to include students and teachers from Fordham Prep as well as others invited by the group, including individuals informed about them by NYC DOC.

For example, on Ascension Day 2000, the group included a few Fordham Prep students and their Christian Service teacher Paul Homer who pointed out that burying the dead is one of the Corporal Works of Mercy and praying for the dead as well as for the living is one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy. The students gave the scriptural readings. Also welcomed by the group was a person who came to participate after learning about the annual prayer event from NYC DOC. She has a family member buried on the island.

After the mass, a visitor finds time and place for quiet prayer for a relative buried on Hart Island.

The audio you hear on this page is soprano Elizabeth Farnum of City Island who has sung a cappella during the annual Potter's Field liturgy in recent years.

The celebrant of the mass often was Father Marks when he was pastor of St. Benedict's, the Bronx, but there have been others through the years including Fr. Robert and Fr. Glen Sudano, both C.F.R., and Jesuits Farthers Norris Ckarke and Fr. Barthett. In recent years, Rev. Augustus Onwubiko, of St. Mary's Star of the Sea, City Island, has been the celebrant.

The number of participants varies, ranging between one and two dozen.

"Sometimes the Correction Department's Public Inofrmation Office will refer to us someone who has indicated a desire to participate at one of our services," said Mrs. Botero.

"Then we always find that some of the inmates who are members of the burial unit want to join us, and of course, they are most welcome to do so. We even bring with us little momentos for the occasion to give them -- a prayer card or scapular or rosary."

It can be a very moving scene -- inmates and the prayer group, strangers to each other, offering prayers for all the island's unclaimed dead, the ultimate strangers of the city.

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