Personalizing a pandemic’s perpetual fury with a tree

COVID-19 trees blessed and celebrated in Kingsbridge Heights ceremony led by Father Franco


Paul Waylonis.

Luis Tovar.

Vidal Galicia Chalpeno.

Those were just a few of the more than 40 names of those lost to COVID-19 that were read aloud April 9 at a memorial on the corner of University and Reservoir avenues in Kingsbridge Heights.

Led by Our Lady of Angels Church Deacon Rev. Wilson Martinez and Father Joseph Franco, the church’s pastor, attendees followed each citation with “we remember.”

As part of a ceremony six months in the making, Franco blessed three trees planted in October in memory of the more than 40,000 coronavirus victims in New York City. 

“We turn to you (God) this afternoon in April, our hearts filled with hope,” Franco said, “for it is the month when we remember the Earth and the life it sustains and the spring with the new life it promises.

“We also turn to you with sadness, Lord, as we remember so many friends who have passed away during these last two years. We are called to remember them, to do something for them and to honor their memory.”

In addition to the blessing, the nearly 30 people in attendance remembered those lost to the pandemic inspired by two songs from a choir of students from nearby Celia Cruz Bronx High School of Music led by director Justin Kelly. They started the ceremony with “Grateful,” and ended with “Hallelujah.”

As the choir reached the middle of “Hallelujah,” the sun poked through the clouds on what was otherwise a rainy overcast day.

The COVID-19 trees memorial was the idea of Marianne Kraft, a neighbor who had been an educator in New York City for 45 years, including principal of St. Athanasius High School in the South Bronx.

“I hope this will inspire people everywhere,” she said. “How else can you remember them. There are about 1 million people” in the United States.

She raised the $700 necessary to purchase the trees, make a lawn sign identifying the trees posted at the site, and pay for the city permits. With the assistance of the James Baldwin Outdoor Learning Center at DeWitt Clinton High School, Kraft set up a weekly table at the center’s farmer’s market asking for donations.

Around the same time, Kraft reached out to Jerome Park Friends and Neighbors founder Deb Travis for help locating the site for the memorial. Travis, who was at the ceremony, expressed appreciation for what Kraft had done for the neighborhood.

“I thought it was a great idea,” Travis said. “As part of Jerome Park Friends and Neighbors, we already clean up the parks and place mulch.

“This is a great way to reconnect and see our friends again (after COVID-19). There’s so much love and beauty here.”

Kraft wants all those affected by the pandemic to take some time and visit the memorial when they can.

“Come by and see the beauty and the strength,” she said. “Just be with the trees.”

As for those trees, Kraft cannot wait to see them eventually bloom.

“The flowers will be pink and lavender,” she said. “And the leaves will be in the shape of hearts.”

COVID, Father Joseph Franco, Rev. Wilson Martinez, Justin Kelly, Marianne Kraft, Deb Travis, Celia Cruz Bronx High School of Music, DeWitt Clinton High School, Jerome Park Friends and Neighbors