Sunday’s ceremony will see the remains of 83 men, women and children receive a proper burial after they were removed from mass graves in trenches behind a quarantine hospital.
“We know from the enamel analysis of the teeth that there were periods of extreme hunger and stress,” archaeologist Cece Saunders said. “And we know from the analysis of the bone that these were heavy laborers.”
Participating at the graveside reinterment will be Monsignor James Dorney, Assemblyman Michael Cusick who is also president of the American Irish Legislators Society of New York State, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Staten Island Pipes and Drums and tenor Andy Cooney.
The service will act as a tribute not just to their struggles, but to the many other Irish immigrants who crossed the Atlantic and died soon after their voyages.
Lynn Rogers, the Executive Director of the Friends of the Abandoned Cemeteries, who is heading up this reinterment, explained that between 1799 and 1858, Staten Island was home to the Marine Hospital Quarantine Station, where tens of thousands of immigrants, largely from Ireland, were sent to recover if New York medical inspectors found them suffering from infectious diseases. Between 1845 and 1852, as the Great Hunger ravaged the Irish nation, many of those arriving in New York were Irish.
Rogers said, “It was a ghastly end for so many of these people who had left Ireland in hopes of a new life in America.
“Their fate was tragic, but now, more than a century and half later, they will receive the recognition and benediction they never received in life."
One New York newspaper reported in April, 1851, “The number of poor people from Ireland who are wandering through the streets of Staten Island in a starving condition is dreadful.”
They died in the streets or at the Marine Hospital. Rogers explained, “There were no records, no death certificates. In many cases people were dying before they could get them up the hill to bury them. They were being buried in mass graves as they died.”
During construction of the St. George Court facilities, a team of professional archaeologists exhumed the remains from these mass graves. DNA testing revealed that all exhumed bodies were of Celtic origin.
There are thousands of remains beneath modern day Staten Island, buried in haste to avoid the spread of disease at the time.
The reinterment of these remains has touched many Irish and Irish Americans searching for their ancestors, who they believe traveled to New York. Often, their research comes to a dead end when they find no record of arrival or a death certificate. Thousands simply disappeared.
Richard L Simpson, a promoter of Staten Island history who visited the coffins said, “It struck me when we were looking at these coffins, 'These could be members of my family and I’d never know.'”
Rogers said the interest in the reinterment of the bones has been astounding. Many people are making the journey from as far as Chicago to pay their respects on April 27.
She added, “Many Irish immigrants, whose only reason for being on Staten Island was because of the quarantine decided to stay and make their new life here. Today, they are 6th and 7th generation Staten Islanders. It would be so fitting if some of the heirs of those first immigrants were to join us on the 27th.”
The Friends of Abandoned Cemeteries will oversee reburial of those remains in a recreated cemetery on the grounds of the new St. George court house. The Friends of Abandoned Cemeteries is also producing a commemorative booklet and is seeking memorial ads. For more information contact SICemetery@gmail.com or call 917-545-3309.
Irish American Jack King, 71, will take part in Sunday’s service in honor of two of his ancestors whom he believes were quarantined after arriving from Ireland.
He told the New York Times : “I’m probably one of the proudest Irishmen that you could find, to know that relatives had gone through this and I have an opportunity to put them to rest. This puts a final end to their sorrows.”The New York Times report outlines how ships sailing into New York Harbor docked at Staten Island for a health inspection before facilities opened on Ellis Island in 1892.
All passengers and crew members had to be examined at the quarantine hospital on Staten Island and many of those deemed unfit for entry to the United States died there.
Mark Russo, the president of Friends of Abandoned Cemeteries, a community group that cleans and maintains forgotten grave sites on Staten Island and helped organized Sunday’s service, outlined what happened next to the paper.He said: “If they were determined to be sick, they were quarantined. And that quarantine turned into a pretty nasty place and a lot of people didn’t make it out.
“These people came over hoping to see their new land and all they saw was the inside of a hospital and in their death, they were thrown into a mass grave.
“Here I am, an Italian-English kid doing this for Irish and German immigrants. I’m doing it because we are all immigrants.”
The remains have sat in two elaborate coffins stored in a 19th-century crypt at nearby Moravian Cemetery since their excavation. A large gray coffin contains all the adult bones, and a smaller white one is used for the children’s remains.
Prayers will be said over the coffins on Sunday before they are lowered into a subterranean vault, which will then be sealed. Atop the nearly one-acre footprint of the burial ground, there is a memorial with green grass, pale pathways and rows of trees.
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