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Batavian's journey to trace roots leads to Italy, pauper's plot, enlightened sobriety

By Joanne Beck
Jim Morasco and Sharon Burkel at Batavia Cemetery
Jim Morasco and Sharon Burkel stand in front of the pauper's plot at Batavia Cemetery on a sunny Monday on Harvester Avenue in Batavia. 
Photo by Joanne Beck

Although it’s fair to say the Rev. James “Jim” Morasco has been working on a genealogy project to trace various members on his dad’s side of the family for the last several years, it might be more accurate to say he’s been working to put the pieces of himself in order for more than three decades.

And, although he may not have planned it this way, the two have peacefully collided with his latest find: his grandmother Genevive and Uncle Nicholas, both who have been traced to the nondescript pauper’s plot on the Southside of Batavia Cemetery on Harvester Avenue.   

“When I called Catherine Roth the second time, she said they’re here; that was the a-ha moment; that’s how I found them,” Morasco said during an interview with The Batavian Monday at The Pub Hub just across from the cemetery. “When I was in Italy … I went to a church and touched the baptismal. All those people I never knew contributed to who I am.”

Roth was a staunch supporter of city and cemetery history and had helped Morasco with research to track the whereabouts of his long-lost family members who died in the 1930s. His grandmother had died at the age of 40 with heart issues, and Nicholas was just 6 years old when he died of scarlet fever. 

Shelves and shelves of darkened yellow parchment from so long ago.

Carefully guarding life’s passing of forgotten people.

Diligently searching for familiar names in memory.

Morasco only remembered hearing about how his father could feel the drip of melting ice that was packed around the bodies when temporarily at their house.

Neither of them had a burial or a headstone, which Morasco wants to rectify. He has compiled a book of poems written over the years in honor of his family, his spiritual work and beliefs, people and social justice, and Morasco’s own struggles and triumphs with alcohol addiction.

Suddenly they come alive after being dead for so many years. They shout at me from the page.

Congessio, Francesco, Giuseppe, Vincenzo.

Moresco, Morasco, Morasca.

Born, Married, Died.

Life’s important moments.

Suspended in time.

It was Vincenzo Morasco who led the way in America from Vasto, Italy, a hilltop ancient Roman town overlooking the cerulean blue waters of the Adriatic Sea. Not an easy task in its own right, emigrating to the United States was made even more difficult, Morasco said, due to Vincenzo having broken his leg and being advised that he wouldn’t be let into Ellis Island with such an injury.

So he bypassed the usual route by going through South America, traveled by banana boat, and ended up coming by way of Niagara Falls. Morasco has visited the famous falls and imagined his brave Italian elder making his way over to a whole new world, a new way of life and opportunities.

Vincent, as he was called on the Southside, worked for a while on the railroad, blasting rocks with a sledgehammer. He was blinded in one eye when a piece of rock flew up and hit him in the eye, and he apparently went on to own a big greenhouse on Swan Street, Morasco said. 

And after that first relative’s trek, six generations followed, he said, bringing with them a spirit of community and patriotism by serving in the military, nursing, as firefighters, and clergy — Morasco, a 1974 Batavia High School grad, is pastor at Morganville United Church of Christ. 

We were something once they say,

Mamma, papa, bambino.

We were flesh and blood once,

Now your flesh and blood.

And so we breathe again,

We are family.

It’s time to bring us home.

While he has been able to relate to family struggles with alcohol — “finding answers to why I act the way I do” — he also cherishes the advice given to him by his Irish mom, Margaret McCann, who shared stories and urged him to carry them on.

“My mother thought the stories were important. She would talk to me about things I didn’t know,” he said. “This is something that I've been thinking about for a while since I told my father I wanted to do this. But I was busy. I'm older now, and I’ve got a lot more time, so I can get things done that I wanted to do. It's kind of a closure for me.

“That was part of it because, you know, I've been in recovery for over 30 years. But that was finding answers as well. You know, finding answers to why I act the way I do, where that comes from, looking at my family history of alcoholism and substance use, and then I started on this as well, along with it, because I started digging up information on people,” he said. “I realized it was almost impossible that I wasn't an alcoholic; it was part of our family; we had the Irish and the Italian; it was an interesting mix.”

While it has also become a closure of sorts for the whole family, it has served as an opening for family reunions with siblings and cousins. Perhaps he’ll share his own stories of visiting Italy and sneaking into a fenced area to see old fishing platoons and envisioning how his own grandpa may have played there years before.

“I told my brother the other day, it's like the grandmother we never knew was bringing us together,” Morasco said.

Any remaining proceeds from the book will go to Batavia Cemetery Association for the good work that the nonprofit’s volunteers do, he said. “It’s important to me that they’re recognized as well,” he said.

Sharon Burkel said that, on behalf of the cemetery association, “we are very pleased that he wants to remember his family this way.”

“Every soul in the cemetery has a story,” she said. “We’ll pick a nice spot in that area for the marker.” 

She remembered reading a news article that, at one point, those in charge of the cemetery were burying people three bodies deep. They had no family to claim them and sometimes were indigents or had been in jail or for whatever other reasons. There wasn’t money or a prearranged plot for them in the traditional cemetery, so they would be placed in the pauper’s plot, a piece of unmarked land with a few trees dotting the landscape. 

Morasco’s book, “Dreaming,” is available at Holland Land Office Museum, GO Art! and HERE.

He isn’t quite done with his genealogy. He also discovered another uncle whose whereabouts were unknown up to now: Uncle Franchesco “Frank,” who drowned in the Tonawanda Creek at age 15. He is in St. Joseph’s Cemetery, though it’s not known exactly where, Morasco said. He’s onto another mission.

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