Approximately 700 Irish Americans, from as far away as Chicago, were at Hyatt Street and Central Avenue, on Staten Island, on Sunday afternoon, as the remains of 83 Irish Famine emigrants, who died in quarantine hospital will be reinterred after having been buried in a mass grave.
The bones were first disturbed during the building of a courthouse parking lot and the ceremony reinterring them there was headed by Catholic Co-Vicar of Staten Island Monsignor James Dorney and Lutheran Pastor Erick Sorensen who consecrated the ground the dead were buried in.
The two coffins, one with adult bones and one with children’s bones, were borne to their final resting place by members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
The remains had all been exhumed from the mass grave covering the years 1846 to 1849. Tooth enamel samples revealed most of the dead has suffered from severe starvation.
“We know from the enamel analysis of the teeth that there were periods of extreme hunger and stress,” archaeologist Ceca Saunders said. “And we know from the analysis of the bone that these were heavy laborers.”
“If they were determined to be sick, they were quarantined,” said Mark Russo, the Master of Ceremonies on the day and president of Friends of Abandoned Cemeteries, “and that quarantine turned into a pretty nasty place and a lot of people didn’t make it out.”
Lynn Rogers, Executive Director of the Friends of the Abandoned Cemeteries group on Staten Island, said that the ceremony was simple but very moving. When researching abandoned graves she found some of her own ancestors, including her great grandfather, are among the dead there.
“It was a beautiful and moving experience,” she said. “At last they can rest in peace. “
“Here on Staten Island you have a rich history of families that have stayed here,” said Assemblyman Michael Cusick, who has helped the cemetery group work with government agencies. “That’s somebody’s father or mother or relative buried in those graves. It’s a very important and unsung job that Lynn has undertaken.”
Cusick has been head of the American Irish Legislators Society of New York State since 2003, and was elected President of the organization in 2009, a position he continues to hold. He was the main speaker on the day.
Rogers 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."
The event started with a funeral procession led by the Staten Island Pipes and Drums and Richmond County Pipes and Drums and Color Guard.
Speakers included Catholic Co-Vicar of Staten Island Msgr. James Dorney and Lutheran Pastor Erick Sorensen – many German immigrants from the period are also buried in anonymous graves.
Tenor Andy Cooney sang “The Star Spangled Banner,” “On Eagle’s Wings” and “God Bless America.” The Irish government was also represented on the solemn occasion.