ST. BONAVENTURE, N.Y. — Students from St. Bonaventure University and Siena College will team up Oct. 2-3 to help the efforts of Operation Dignity, a national movement to restore old and abandoned psychiatric hospital cemeteries.
St. Bonaventure’s Franciscan Center for Social Concern, together with Siena College’s School of Social Work, is sponsoring the event, which includes a Friday evening panel discussion at St. Bonaventure followed by a Saturday work detail at a cemetery that holds the remains of approximately 1,000 former residents of the now-closed Gowanda Psychiatric Center.
Many mental health patients who died while institutionalized at psychiatric centers across the nation were buried in unmarked or numbered graves on the grounds of such facilities. Through Operation Dignity, mental health providers, consumers and other volunteers are working to restore these forgotten and often inaccessible grave sites.
The Mental Health Association in Cattaraugus County is spearheading efforts at the former Gowanda Psychiatric Center site in the Erie County town of Collins. Students from Siena, a Catholic college near Albany, learned of the project through the state Office of Mental Health, and joined forces with sociology students from St. Bonaventure to draw attention to the project and help its efforts.
Twelve students and two faculty members from Siena will arrive at St. Bonaventure on Friday, Oct. 2, said Sr. Suzanne Kush, director of the Franciscan Center for Social Concern. Following a private dinner there will be a public panel discussion at 7 p.m. in the Reilly Center’s Athletic Hall of Fame. The Friday event is being made possible by a grant from the Friends of Rural Cemeteries.
The panel will consider the topic “Mental Health Cemetery Restoration and the Rights of Deceased Mental Health Consumers: Where Should We Draw The Line?” The focus will be on whether it’s still prudent for some states, such as New York, to refuse to release the names of former psychiatric center residents, a hurdle in efforts to restore dignity to the deceased buried at these sites, said Sr. Suzanne.
Among the panelists will be Faith Tanner-Thrush, advocate and board member of the Mental Health Association of Cattaraugus County; Tom Wallace, director of the Western Regional Office of the New York State Office of Mental Healthl; and Phil Phalen, Gowanda historian.
On Saturday, Oct. 3, St. Bonaventure and Siena faculty and students will participate in a work detail at the former Gowanda Psychiatric Center site. “We will be locating and unearthing grave markers,” said Sr. Suzanne.
The graves are marked by flat stones that once rested on the ground, but have shifted and worked their way underground over the years, said Tammy Querns of the Mental Health Association. Some markers are covered by up to two feet of dirt.
Volunteers poke the ground with rods to find the stones, unearth them, clean them, restabilize the soil underneath, and return the grave markers.
“We’re excited to be working with students from Siena, the Mental Health Association’s Friendship Club and Operation Dignity on such a worthwhile academic and service initiative,” said Sr. Suzanne. “It’s important to bring some dignity and closure to the resting places of these deceased and forgotten individuals.”
For more information about St. Bonaventure’s Franciscan Center for Social Concern, go to www.sbu.edu/fcsc.
About the University: St. Bonaventure is in the top 15 percent of institutions in U.S.News & World Report’s 2010 ranking of Northern universities that offer master’s degrees. It has a history of accomplishment and service that extends back 150 years. At the heart of St. Bonaventure University is the Franciscan affirmation of the dignity and worth of the entire created order. Fundamental to this vision is an awareness that it is within relationships and community that individuals discover and develop their potential.