Nearly 300 people gathered outside St. Joseph’s Church in Greenwich Village Saturday morning to mourn Avonte Oquendo, the 14-year-old autistic boy who went missing from his school in Long Island City, Queens, last October.
“This city, they say it is so cold, so hard, but it rose up, united with one goal. Find Avonte (Oquendo),” said the Oquendos’ lawyer David Perecman to the mourners inside. “People came from all walks of life, offered their time, walked the streets of New York, peered into every corner, covered buildings with the pictures of him.”
His disappearance sparked a city-wide search which ended last week when his remains were found on the banks of the East River.
New Yorkers from various parts of the city, who knew of Avonte only after he disappeared, united one last time to pay their respects. The service was scheduled to start at 11 a.m. but as early as 10:30 a.m., the line of mourners waiting to enter the church already had around 100 people and extended around the block. By the time they were allowed to enter, the line had tripled in length.
Nya Thomas, a resident of Brooklyn, came to Manhattan only for the funeral. “My heart is breaking,” she said as she dabbed at her eyes with her handkerchief. “I have an autistic son. He goes to school. This could have been my child.”
Another mourner Sharon Senior Anderson came to the funeral from Queens with her 13-year-old daughter, Najah. “The fact that he went missing from school is heartbreaking,” she said. “It is every parent’s worst nightmare come true.”
She added that she and her daughter volunteer at a non-profit organization that works to get resources for children with special needs, like Avonte, which is why they came to the funeral.
The loss was especially keen for Kurt Patrick, who stood outside the church with a single white rose and a poster demanding justice for Avonte. Patrick said he was Avonte’s cousin and described him as “the sweetest kid in the world with a smile, a lovable person.”
Cardinal Edward Egan, who performed the service, called Avonte “a child of God” and urged everyone to stand by the family in their time of grief. As the choir sang one hymn after another, many mourners could be heard sniffing back tears. But it was Perecman who made the most impact.
“This family has lost Avonte and not in vain,” he said, closing his speech. “We must promise that this will never happen again. Not to any child, especially not to one who is so dependent on us. We must make this promise to every parent who sends a child to school, every grandparent who sends a grandchild to school, every boy and girl who sends a brother or sister to school. Never again.”
The crowd in the church burst into applause.
Correction: This story first published on January 25 stated that Avonte was 12 years old. He was 14. We regret the error.