WILLARD — Thanks to a group of people that overcame resistance related to privacy concerns, former Willard Psychiatric Center gravedigger Lawrence Mocha and the 5,776 patients he buried will be remembered at a May 16 celebration.
The state Department of Mental Health not only has helped track down Mocha’s descendants, but will participate in the ceremonies.
Willard Cemetery Memorial Project chair Colleen Spellecy of Waterloo said the ceremonies will begin at 11 a.m. May 16 at the cemetery, located near the east shore of Seneca Lake. It is being billed as a memorial celebration for all those interred at the cemetery in unmarked graves, with a special remembrance of Mocha planned.
Mocha was born June 23, 1878 in Austria. He emigrated to the United States in 1907, settling in New York City. He experienced some mental issues that ended up with him being sent to Willard in 1918. He stayed there until dying Oct. 26, 1968, at the age of 90.
During his 50 years at Willard, he dug more than 1,500 graves for his fellow patients. The cemetery operated from 1870 to 2000, and those who died at the psychiatric center, both with and without family, were buried in graves marked only by a number.
“The plaque that will be attached to the memorial stone is being mailed this week and we should have it by next week,” Spellecy said.
The plaque was paid for by an anonymous donor.
“We will get it installed before the end of April,” Spellecy continued. “Then, on April 11, Hobart and William Smith College students will do their community service at the cemetery, helping cut back undergrowth, rake, mow and clean up.”
The Office of Mental Health will send chippers and other machinery to help clean up the overgrowth so the cemetery will be in good condition for the ceremonies.
The program will include a greeting, opening prayer and introduction of speakers.
Dr. Ann Sullivan, the state commissioner of Mental Health, and Darby Penney, co-author of the book “The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic,” are among the invited guests.
The Rev. James Fennessy, pastor of St. Francis St. Clare Parish in Waterloo and Seneca Falls, will bless the memorial stone.
There will be a reading of the names of those buried in the cemetery, followed by an introduction of Lawrence Mocha’s descendants, a closing prayer by Pastor David Spencer and light refreshments.
The ceremony will be the culmination of a two-year effort by Spellecy and the committee to recognize the unknown and unremembered patients buried at Willard.
Spellecy said the Willard Cemetery Memorial Project grew out of concern for the 5,776 Willard patients buried there, plus those buried in “Patient’s Row” at Ovid Union Cemetery and Holy Cross Cemetery in Ovid.
After she read the book about the left-behind patient suitcases at Willard written by Penney and Peter Stastny, Spellecy said she was compelled and committed to rectify the situation of unremembered persons buried with no name and no markers.
Yvonne Greule, Gail Snyder, Sheila Reynolds, Paulette Likoudis, Janet Brown, Diane Valerio, Barry Martz and Perry Bradley joined Spellecy on the committee.