Remembering One
Who Remembered
the Forgotten of
Potter's Field

ASCENSION DAY 2003 -- For the first time since she and Jenny Botero of St. Benedict's parish initiated the annual Mass of Remembrance in 1991 for all whose bodies have been buried in Potter's Field, Sister Anne Tubman of St. Lucy's Center, also the Bronx, was not on City Island's Fordham St. ferry slip waiting with Jenny and the others to embark on the brief 9 a.m. trip to Hart Island.

Ascension Day Mass of Remembrance participants gather on the City Island Fordham St. ferry slip. (NYCHS © photo)

At least she was not visibly there. But she was present in thoughts voiced during conversations among the two dozen who had gathered on the dock to participate in the event that she had helped launch.

Later, on Hart Island, she was present in the prayers offered. During the mass, its celebrant, Monsignor Edmund Whalen, pastor of St. Benedict's, made specific mention of her at the point in the liturgy where worshippers are asked to pray for the deceased.

Founder of the Heart of Mary Healing Ministry and a member of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary (RSHM), whose motto in Latin translates as "That they may have Life," Sister Anne died April 26. She was 68.

Born in Leitrim, Ireland, she took her first steps toward becoming a nun at age 15 and professed final vows seven years later.

With the regular ferry undergoing maintenance, the group boards a backup boat used earlier in the morning to ferry officers and inmates for a disinterment. (NYCHS © photo)

The Institute of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary was founded Feb. 24, 1849 when a a few women gathered together to form a community dedicated to the works of Father Jean Gailhac, a priest in Béziers, France.

These works included a shelter for women and an orphanage. By the time the members of the new community made their first profession of vows in May of 1851 their number had grown to 10.

Fr. Gailhac had served as a hospital and military chaplain but his charitable efforts made him aware of the needs of marginalized persons in society, among whom were women who had become involved in prostitution.

Most had no social or family support to assist them. He founded and financed, until his money ran out, a Good Shepherd shelter for the women and soon afterwards, an orphanage as well.

The rich widow of a friend expressed a desire to devote her life and wealth to the good works Gailhac had begun. Thus RSHM was founded. In 1972 Gailhac was a declared Venerable by the Church, a step toward recognition as a saint.

The group disembarks on Hart Island. (NYCHS © photo)

An initial attempt to establish an RSHM community in Callan, County Kilkenny, Ireland, failed because of a dispute between a parish priest and a bishop.

The sisters persevered and in 1870 set down their first roots outside of France in Lisburn, near Belfast, Northern Ireland. There followed for the order a decade of expansion, in the United States as well as in Europe. Today they are in 12 states and 14 countries.

In the U.S., through arrangements made with Bishop John Loughlin for the Diocese of Brooklyn, that then included all of Long Island, six RSHM Irish sisters arrived in Sag Harbor on March 15, 1877. They took charge of the parochial school and began to teach catechism to young adults.

From there they expanded to parochial and private schools primarily in the East at the start but later on the West Coast too. Marymount College in Tarrytown was founded December 8, 1907.

The group offers special prayers and three women place flowers at the children's burial area. (NYCHS © photo)

With a BA from Marymount College and a master's in guidance from St. John's University, Sister Anne worked as a teacher and guidance counselor in New York and overseas. In the mid and late 1970s, she served as a guidance counselor at St. Barnabas High School in the Bronx.

Sister Anne was spiritual director of St. Lucy's Center, a parish-sponsored center. Her Heart of Mary healing ministry was based at the center. She had been involved in healing ministry work for 20 years.

Healing has been a key aspect of the Christian message and mission from the start; so have differences in emphasis on what the healing focus should be.

With the the rise of charismatic renewal movement in recent decades, the concept of promoting spiritual healing of the whole person through prayer group support, services and outreach -- with physical healings or health improvements possibly happening almost as an occasional add-on or after thought -- has gained ground.

This approach seemingly contrasts with what for some appears a cure-focused search for the miraculous historically linked with certain more traditional devotions, Yet the prayers, preaching and liturgy at these too remind participants that spiritual healing remains primary.

Usually the annual mass is held at the foot of the large cross monument but on Ascension Day 2003 the table and chairs were set up at a considerable distance away because a pair of geese, their nest and its two eggs (lower right) got there first. Keeping a wary eye on the situation, also at a discrete distance, is one of the expectant feathered parents. (NYCHS © photo)

In addition to the healing ministry at St. Lucy's Center, with which Sister Anne was associated, the Bronx parish also has had for more than a half century an Our Lady of Lourdes outdoor grotto with a reputation among some devout as a place of healing. The grotto has come to be called by some the "Lourdes of America" but neither the pastor nor the diocese assert that title or claim the water -- from the city system -- has any miraculous or curative powers.

The founder of St. Lucy's, Monsignor Pasquale Lombardo, visited the French shrine in 1932 and was inspired to build similar-looking one on the church grounds at the corner of Bronxwood and Mace Avenues. It opened in 1939. Thousands visit it every year.

The parish clergy stress its spiritual value, evoking faith and prayer in keeping with the spirit of St. Bernadette of Lourdes, and caution against attributing magical or mysterious powers in the Bronx grotto's waters. Still many find renewed strength and some even report gaining improved health through their devotions at the grotto.

It was on their way home from a spiritual retreat entitled "Healing Our Family Tree," at Villa Maria in Sloatsburg, N.Y., in 1991 that the idea of offering an annual mass of remembrance at Potter's Field arose. 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.

A few inmates who work the cemetery detail chose to participate in the mass and were welcomed to do so. (NYCHS © photo)

"It was then that we planned to seek holding a mass right in the City Cemtery," Sister Anne recalled three years ago in helping NYCHS prepare a history web page about on the annual event.

"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."

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.

Before the mass, the Ascension Day 2003 group visited the children's burial area where special prayers were said and flowers were placed.

(At left) DOC Hart Island Captain Michael Rella chats with a member of the 2003 remembrance mass group on the Hart Island dock as she and the others await arrival of the boat to return to City Island. (NYCHS © photo)

(Below) The remembrance mass group says and waves goodbye until next year to Hart Island and Captain Rella. (NYCHS © photo)

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.

On Ascension 2003 a Canada Geese nest with two eggs was observed at the foot of the cross monument where the mass is usually said. So the table and chairs for the service were set up at some distance away not to distress the expectant feathered parents keeping the nest warm and secure.

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

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

"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."

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.

On Ascension Day 2003 the pattern of past masses held true. First two inmates decided to participate. Then another and still later two more.

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.

The moment was particularly poignant May 29, 2003, coming a month after Sister Anne's passing. She would not have missed it for the world . . . . and perhaps she didn't.

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