Cleansing the Spirits at Norwich State Hospital

Postcard, ca. 1907, Norwich State Hospital for the Insane
Postcard, ca. 1907, Norwich State Hospital for the Insane

Norwich State Hospital Today

Because Norwich State Hospital has played such a significant role in my family’s history, I am interested in what is happening to it in the present and what will happen in the future. The hospital, renamed Norwich Hospital in the early 1960s, was permanently closed in 1996. Remaining patients were moved to other hospitals in the state. The property was then transferred to the State Department of Public Works. The town of Preston, in which most of the hospital grounds lie, purchased 390 acres from the state in 2009 and began demolishing the buildings in 2011. Millions of dollars were spent on environmental cleanup associated with the demolition, including the removal of lead-based paint, asbestos, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

When I heard of the demolition of the hospital where so much of my family history transpired, I wondered if any of the buildings would be saved, or if every trace of the hospital’s existence would be erased. I knew that the buildings would just sit there rotting unless the town could make use of the land. I hoped that they were considering saving at least one of the hospital buildings as a remembrance of what happened there, both the good and the bad. By contacting the Preston Redevelopment Authority, I learned that they had not torn down the Administration Building, a striking example of neo-Gothic architecture that opened in 1908. It was sealed up to protect the interior from the elements. The town’s plan was to transfer it intact to whoever took over the land.

In 2016, the Mohegan Tribe entered into an agreement with the Preston Redevelopment Authority to purchase and develop the land. The property is not to be used for gaming purposes (they already have a casino just across the river). It will also not be converted to tribal lands, so whatever is built there will be a source of tax revenue for the state and local jurisdictions. The development plan unveiled by the Mohegan Tribe includes amenities such as a water park, senior housing, a sports complex, entertainment, restaurants, and retail. I am pleased to say that the Administration Building will apparently be incorporated into the new development.

Cleansing the Spirits

On March, 1, 2018, I came to the former grounds of Norwich State Hospital to observe the lighting of a ceremonial fire. The weather was a cool but comfortable 50 degrees on a flat, grassy field where the Mohegans had set up a fire circle. They gathered stones from four surrounding towns and positioned them around a circle of white sand, leaving spaces between them at the four points of the compass. In the middle, cedar logs were propped up against each other like a tent. Not far away, maybe ten or twelve feet, was a small, but sturdy, wigwam where members of the tribe would stay during the four days that the fire would continue to burn.

As I waited for the ceremony to begin, Chief Lynn “Many Hearts” Malerba greeted each of the thirty or so attendees and wafted smoke over them from a smudge pot of sage leaves carried on a seashell. The sage smoke was meant to cleanse each person of negativity, just as the smoke from the fire was intended to cleanse the land and the spirits of the people who had passed through it over the years. The Mohegan Tribe plans to light a cleansing fire on this spot four times a year, once for each season, until ground is broken on the development project.

Chief Malerba started the ceremony by addressing the Creator in the Mohegan language. She followed the short prayer with a translation in English, which began, “Creator, we thank you for this beautiful day and days to follow. We ask you for peace.” The fire was lit, and then attendees were given the opportunity to approach the fire and make an offering of tobacco as they circled the fire.

At each of the four compass points around the fire, I said the name of an ancestor who had been a patient at the hospital. From the West, I threw some tobacco on the flames and said, under my breath, “Graziella Bonneau Metthe.” From the North, I did the same for Rose Bonneau. I did it from the East for Pauline Metthe; from the South, for Beatrice Metthe Tillotson, my grandmother. I added my mother’s name at that point, because she had also been on this land as a child visiting her mentally ill mother. A steady stream of smoke drifted around me as I did this. Whether or not I believed in its cleansing power, I knew that it mattered that I had put into action my feelings of empathy for what my ancestors experienced at Norwich State Hospital.

I left the ceremonial ground at the hospital with a sense of unity with the Mohegan Tribe. Like me, they understand the power of acknowledging past trauma and negativity. The Mohegans do it by lighting fires and asking their Creator for peace and healing; I do it by writing about my ancestors so that I can heal and empower myself, and others grappling with their own family history.

4 thoughts on “Cleansing the Spirits at Norwich State Hospital”

  1. It was awesome that you could participate in the Mohegan ceremony and release your thoughts about family that inhabited or visited the grounds. Your description helped me imagine what it was like.

  2. Such a wonderful turn of circumstance! Sooo much better than a strip mall! So respectful and heartful … so much goodness!

  3. Your postings led me to reread Henry Miller’s “The Tailor Shop”, in which his family makes him take his Aunt Mele to an insane asylum to be committed. Just heartbreaking.

    Regarding this most recent posting, all I can say is “Long live exorcism!”

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