Editor's Note: This story appeared in the Oct. 6 edition of the Olean Times Herald.
By Kate Day Sager
Olean Times Herald
The year was 1916, and a young woman who had suffered nerve damage from a lighting strike was admitted to the former Gowanda Psychiatric Center near Gowanda, N.Y., about an hour north of the St. Bonaventure University campus.
The woman, who had been a postcard photographer with her husband before the accident, lived out her life in the psychiatric unit, dying at age 56.
The anonymity that surrounded her life in the institution followed her to the grave. Her remains were buried in a plot identified only by a numbered marker.
It was a practice repeated across the country during an era when mental illness was misunderstood, and psychiatric patients were too often admitted to institutions and forgotten.
Today, the Gowanda cemetery, which concealed the identities of more than 1,000 people buried there, is receiving attention from a number of volunteers from the region.
It's part of Operation Dignity, a national movement to rescue these neglected psychiatric center cemeteries -- some 50,000 burial plots in all -- from a forgotten past.
The Mental Health Association in Cattaraugus County coordinates the restoration effort at the Gowanda-area site, now owned by Collins Correctional Facility. (The prison is on the grounds of the former Gowanda Psychiatric Center.) Over the past few years, Mental Health Association clients and staff members, together with students from local high schools and St. Bonaventure University, have worked to restore the site.
Tammy Querns, director of the Association's Compeer Program, has helped lead the effort, bringing work crews to the cemetery to locate and retrieve buried headstones, and to mow the grass and pull weeds. Over the years, stones and markers have fallen over and worked their way into the earth, leaving no or little indication of the grave below, said Querns.
The psychiatric center was established on 500 acres of land in 1898, said Phil Palen, a member of the Gowanda Area Historical Society. The acreage included a working farm, and many patients helped work the land, raising their own food.
The first burial is believed to have occurred in 1899, when patient Thomas Larkin was laid to rest on the grounds. The cemetery would grow, with many grave sites being marked with a metal marker or a small cement stone bearing only a number stamped into its surface.
At first, all deceased patients were buried in the same area, said Palen, but eventually separate plots were established so as to group together those of the same religion. A cross was added to the markers of Catholics, the Star of David for Jews, and a wreath designated Protestants.
The last burial is believed to have occurred in 1962. When the psychiatric center closed in 1994, many of the cemetery records were lost.
“My grandfather knew patients who were sent up there (merely) because they were foreign and couldn’t communicate,” said Palen. “There were people of every walk of life up there — lawyers, doctors, teachers — and in the end there was often no one to claim them.”
Palen said he is happy to see volunteers “restoring dignity” to those buried there.
The St. Bonaventure volunteers are led by Sr. Suzanne Kush, director of the university's Franciscan Center for Social Concern. It's one of many service-oriented opportunities coordinated by the center.
“We try to go once a year," said Sr. Suzanne. “There has been much improvement because of volunteer groups, but there’s still quite a bit of work to be done.”
Students were surprised recently when their probing of the earth turned up a buried stone marker that not only carried a full name, but the person's birth and death dates as well. Suddenly, a name and time frame were revealed in this sea of anonymity. "It was a moving experience," said Sr. Suzanne. "The students had a moment of silence out of respect for the person."
It's just such occurrences, when classroom theory meets experience to produce a moment of clarity, that the Center for Franciscan Concern hopes students find in its service projects, said Sr. Suzanne. "You can talk in the classroom about respecting the dignity of people, even in death, but it might take an actual experience, such as unearthing the name of someone lost for generations, before the message really hits home," she said.
For more information on the restoration project, or to volunteer with Operation Dignity, contact the Mental Health Association at (716) 372-0208.