Cardinal Egan memorializes forgotten Irish immigrants on Staten Island in New York
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Mourners gathered at St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church on Staten Island Saturday to bury the dead, but this was no ordinary funeral.
Members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians escorted two caskets - one a small, white children's casket with golden angels; the other larger and pearl-colored - into the church as bagpipes played "Amazing Grace."
The two coffins contained the final remains of immigrants who died over 150 years ago.
The remains represent the thousands of unnamed Irish and German immigrants who came to America in the mid-19th century, looking for a new and better life, but instead ended up in quarantine on Staten Island because of severe illness. Many of those confined never made it out, and were buried in mass graves with little fanfare or record.
Workers found the bones during the construction of a new courthouse in St. George in 2000. "We knew going into this project that we were likely to encounter the remains of what had once been a burial ground," said Marc Violette, press officer for the New York State Dormitory Authority, which was charged with the project.
As soon as the existence of a cemetery site was confirmed, a long process of historical excavation and forensic analysis began.
For some, the process seemed to take too long. Lynn Rogers is the Executive Director of Friends of Abandoned Cemeteries, a Staten Island non-profit organization that works to reclaim and honor the long-forgotten, buried dead. Rogers and Bill Reilly, a local member of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians, worked tirelessly to bring the remains back to where they knew they belonged.
“Bill and I went on a crusade," Rogers said, "and this is the result of our campaign, which was over 2000 letters and petitions.” This weekend, their hard work came to fruition, and for Rogers, the day couldn't come soon enough.
At the memorial, attendees from the community, many wearing sashes with the green, orange and white of Ireland's flag, lined the pews along with local politicians, a representative from the German consulate and Irish ambassador to the U.S. Michael Collins. Edward Cardinal Egan, former archbishop of New York, presided over the interfaith ceremony. His sermon emphasized why, more than a century and a half later, it is important to honor the immigrants who had lain neglected for so many years.
"Why do we bury the dead?" he asked. "Because we are burying images of God."
Monsignor James Dorney and Lutheran Reverend Richard Michael also lead the service. "My parents having come from Ireland," said Msgr. Dorney, "made it all the more special that we could remember the immigrants this way, and to make this a celebration that -- how would I put this now-- that brings people together to appreciate all the more a very essential part of our nation's and our borough's history."
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