By Gretchen Berger
Stephen, the young homeless man who passed away in Riverside Park back on March 9th, was given a proper and loving memorial on Sunday afternoon at The Christian Community Church, just a short walk from the bench where he sat at 75th Street in Riverside Park.
The nondenominational church at 309 West 74th Street, which had posted the event several weeks ago on Stephen’s bench, opened its doors to all who wanted to find solace and share their stories. The Christian Community’s priest, Rev. Gisela Wielki, presided over the service. She offered a touching eulogy and sermon on her encounters with Stephen and the possible meaning of the sudden death of this quiet young man along with his relationship to the community at large in a more spiritual dimension. Rev. Gisela spoke of Stephen as “a silent presence in the park” sitting almost “Buddha-like” in his maroon hoodie. She also added that his name comes from the Greek Stephanos, meaning wreath or crown – fitting inasmuch as we are all bound together in his memory.
In addition to the sermon, there were musical offerings and poetry. There were two piano pieces – Prelude in F, by J.S. Bach, from the Well-Tempered Clavier, and Erik Satie’s “A Prayer for the Salvation of my Soul” from the Mass for the Poor (Messe des Pauvres). Also during the service, poems were read, including “The Creed” by John Masefield, read by Rev. Wielki, The lines near the end of the poem read:
So shall I fight, so shall I tread,
In this long war beneath the stars;
So shall a glory wreathe my head,
So shall I faint and show the scars,
The poem alludes to the wreath revealed in Stephen’s name. Others included an original poem named “Reunion,” read by its author. It spoke of her encounters with Stephen and his great wish to be reunited with his parents, who are believed to have passed away.
After the formal portion of the service concluded, the audience – numbering 35 to 40 people, plus children, babies and two dogs – then formed a circle and talked informally about their experiences with Stephen over the four years he inhabited Riverside Park. Stories were shared, some people cried, and all were shocked at his untimely death. Billy the Birdman added that a new baby hawk has been named Stephen in his honor. Everyone was indeed grateful for this lovely community gathering and the comfort it provided.
According to Rev. Gisela, it is expected that there will be an autopsy at some point to determine cause of death. In addition, Stephen’s remains will likely be interred on Hart Island, the nation’s largest potter’s field, located off the Bronx’s northeastern shore in the western end of the Long Island Sound. Rev. Gisela remarked that it’s actually a very nice, quiet natural refuge with fresh air and open skies.
Flowers and other memento mori still continue to be placed upon his bench in the park and there is hope that this bench will be named in his remembrance, if the necessary funds can be raised. The Riverside Park Conservancy sponsors an “Adopt-a-Bench” program through which donations can be made over a year’s time to fund the bench plaque. If anyone is interested, the website is: riversideparknyc.org/adopt-a-bench.