Catholic Chapel

(c. 1935)

The burials on Hart Island were performed by prison inmates under prison supervision and attended by Protestant, Catholic and Hebrew clergy. Catholics were interred in separate plots up until the 1960s. Religious observance was encouraged by the city as a way to maintain order. Each denomination had separate chapels until 1935, when an interfaith chapel funded by the Catholic Charities was completed. Father Demetrius Zema, an Italian born Jesuit Priest, who was head of the history department at Fordham University, oversaw the construction of the chapel for Cardinal Hayes.

Regarding this chapel, The New York Times was quoted on October 26, 1931: “The cornerstone of the new Catholic Chapel at the Hart’s Island prison, the only separate prison building set aside for Catholic services, was laid yesterday afternoon...prisoners numbering about 1000 were grouped at the rear of the crowd…The new chapel will cost about $60,000, which is being raised by voluntary subscription under the direction of Cardinal Hayes and Father Zema.”

By the time it was completed, the Hart Island chapel cost Catholic Charities roughly one million dollars, a large sum in the Depression years. Before he left his post as prison chaplain, teacher and council to the inmates in 1936, Father Zema organized a choir to sing at mass in the chapel. In 1941, he attended a service dedicating a stained glass window depicting St. Peter Claver distributing food to slaves disembarking from a slave ship. The window was commissioned by New York City Police Lieutenant Vance Parkinson and dedicated to the new chaplain Reverend Anthony Glaser as well as to Father Zema. The one-and-a-half story, red brick building was abandoned in 1966, when the Hart Island workhouse closed. The Catholic Diocese removed the stained glass and the church bell was taken by vandals.

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