Walking through the woods on a summer evening

By Fr. John Girotti | Special to The Compass | January 7, 2021

I am told that my last name in Italian means “little walk” or “to take a stroll.” It should come as no surprise then that I have a predilection for taking long walks in the beauty of God’s creation. My father, too, has had the decided good fortune of being able to walk every day to his place of work across an empty tract of land rather blandly called “The County Grounds.” When I was young, I would sometimes go for a walk with him through these same fields that he knew so very well. And it was on one of these strolls, when I was about 12, that I saw something which has haunted me now for many years.

Walking through the woods that summer evening, my father and I came upon the ruins of three old buildings. They were surrounded by an ever-encroaching forest with the abandoned buildings in the center of the woods. When I went up to investigate, I noticed that there were rusty iron bars on all of the windows. I knew that this could not have been a jail, so I asked my father what these buildings had been used for. He looked at me rather nervously and said that these abandoned buildings were where the county had put people who were considered to be incurable. It was an insane asylum.

Over the years, the image of these buildings with iron bars, now long since demolished, has haunted me. Who were the people who lived there? Who were those who cared for them? Did anybody visit? Did anybody care? Speaking with others through the years, I have learned some answers.

The past 60 years have witnessed much advancement in psychology and in our understanding of the human mind. Today there are powerful medicines and successful therapies that can greatly assist those who suffer from mental illness. However, it was not always this way. Most of us cannot comprehend the anguish of those who had such struggles before there was any medicine or proper understanding. People were simply committed to mental institutions to become wards of the state. The pain and the stigma, the abandonment and the rejection, must have been unbearable. And this happened in our own time.

I am fortunate to not struggle with mental illness, although I have ministered to many faithful people who have. Some have described it to me as being lost in the woods with a constant searching for a way out. It is difficult to describe unless one has experienced it. In the Gospels, Jesus is often depicted as healing the sick — both physically, spiritually and mentally. In the increasing isolation and hopelessness of modern society, these same struggles will almost certainly increase. Our ministry in the church must increasingly become attuned to those amongst us who often quietly suffer — in the mind and with a stigma that often follows.

Today, all that remains of the buildings is a stone foundation and steps that lead to nowhere. The forest has completely taken over while young couples jog through the ruins with their requisite dogs without knowing what or who they are stepping on. Nearby a sign marks the potter’s field cemetery where the remains of the residents had been buried in unmarked graves. And all is still and quite peaceful.

I am certain that those who worked in those buildings were often heroic and charitable. They did the best they medically could with the limited resources that they had at the time. Today, with the blessing of modern medicine, medication and counseling, we have advanced greatly in the field of mental health. And yet, sadly, the stigma remains. We don’t forcibly put people behind iron bars in insane asylums anymore, but we often treat them in exactly the same way. And this troubling image from a walk on a summer day many years ago, reminds me that this must never happen again. 

Fr. Girotti is vicar for canonical services and associate moderator of the curia for the Diocese of Green Bay.

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