A visit to Potter’s Field

Honoring the deceased has long been a tradition in our society but rarely does that include the unknown dead in Potter’s Field.There have been, and hopefully always will be, that segment of the living who extend their caring to our unknown deceased brethren. Each year, for almost two decades now, a local prayer group joins with a small number of people who have relatives buried on Hart Island to make the pilgrimage to that sacred isle to pray for those interred there.This year an invitation was extended to the officers of the East Bronx History Forum to join in that prayerful journey.They met at the Fordham Street dock on City Island on May 13 for the short trip aboard the Michael Cosgrove to be ferried to that historic island for the Ascension Thursday Mass.Tom McCarthy, president of the New York Correction History Society, led the group with assists from Captains Jones and Thompson and Corrections Officer McCall.

Upon docking, the first sign of life we noticed was a huge nest atop a group of pilings to the right of the ferry slip.It housed two osprey and their fledglings, perhaps a sign that where there’s new life there is new hope.It was then off for the quarter mile hike to the outdoor altar set-up near the cemetery.Along the way Tom McCarthy relayed numerous stories and some fascinating historical comments to the group of 30 pilgrims.McCarthy is the leading expert on the history of the island and never runs out of anecdotes.Father Augustus Onwubiko of St. Mary Star of the Sea Church on City Island celebrated the mass and members of the prayer group read the epistles and provided the singing.The group then had a short time to walk around the site and the Department of Corrections provided a basket of fruit and some liquid refreshment for the pilgrims before the ferry returned us safely to City Island.

Hart Island was purchased by the City of New York in 1868 and the following year 45 acres at the northern end was designated Potter’s Field.The first burial took place on April 20, 1869.Louisa Van Slyke had passed away in Charity Hospital at the age of twenty-four and, being an orphan, became the first person to be interred in Hart Island’s Potter’s Field.Since then many thousands have joined her beneath that sacred sod and it is well that some folks still remember our unknown or indigent forbearers and come here to pray for their immortal souls.

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