Though the town’s highest elected official said recently that he doesn’t understand the Congregational Church of New Canaan’s claim regarding ownership of God’s Acre, an email obtained by NewCanaanite.com shows that the church’s pastor had outlined the position to him early this summer.
The Rev. Chapin Garner told First Selectman Kevin Moynihan in a June 9 email, “Our understanding is this: God’s Acre is not only a cemetery, it is our church cemetery.”
“Indeed, it is named ‘God’s Acre’ because that is the 17th century term for a church burial ground,” Garner said in the email, whose copied recipients included Town Attorney Ira Bloom, attorney Gabriella Kiniry, a congregant who has advised the church, and Nick Williams, a selectman who also is a a member the church.
“We have had pastors and parishioners buried on that hill, and it is our sacred obligation to protect that hallowed ground in which they were laid to rest,” Garner’s email continued. “We do not want anything built on our ancient burial ground—not a terrace and not sidewalks. Not only is that our desire, but we strongly believe Connecticut State law prohibits any construction on an ancient burial ground.”
He referred to a state law that prohibits towns from using ancient burial grounds for anything other than burials. “No portion of any ancient burial place shall be taken for public use without the approval of the General Assembly,” part of the law says. (It’s a felony to interfere with burial grounds.)
In New Canaan, a group that began as the “Caroling Committee” later developed plans to install a permanent stone terrace at the top of God’s Acre, directly across Park Street from the church.
The original purpose of the group of volunteers (one member, Tucker Murphy, now works for Moynihan) had been to ensure that the practical needs for putting on the Christmas Eve caroling—such as lights on the tree, bandstand, barricades, power and songsheets—were met, even after a local family that helped organize it, the Hersams, pulled out after selling their weekly newspaper to Hearst Corporation.
It’s unclear just when the committee’s plans expanded to include a flagstone terrace with a 18-by-36-foot patio—later dubbed the “Founders Terrace” (New Canaan was founded around the Congregational Church)—or whether or how that development was communicated to church officials. News of the property ownership dispute between the town and church broke last month, following review of a committee document.
The committee formally introduced its plans for the permanent terrace in March 2019, appearing before the Historic District Commission. That same month, at least one member of the Congregational Church contacted the town with concerns.
An email that Bill Gardner (a retired attorney) sent to Moynihan on the morning of March 22, 2019, said, in part, “Kevin, I am concerned about rumors of a proposal to build a permanent structure on God’s Acre. God’s Acre is the ‘former’ cemetery of the Congregational Church of New Canaan, formerly known as Canaan Parish. All of the tombstones [but not the bodies] were relocated to at least two other cemeteries (Parade Hill and Lakeview), but according to Janet Lindstrom, there is strong evidence to suggest that remains of human bodies are still in the ground at God’s Acre. Disturbance of a cemetery, as I understand it, is forbidden under Connecticut law.” Gardner also raised the ownership issue.
Moynihan tapped a title searcher and historian to look into it. On that same afternoon of March 22, 2019, Andrew Melillo responded that a 1773 deed shows the town owns God’s Acre, adding that it is “very likely” that there are burials there.
More than one year later—on Aug. 19, 2020, weeks after Garner’s stating the church’s position—Moynihan forwarded Melillo’s research to the tax assessor. That’s when the “owner” designee on the tax assessor field card changed from “cemetery” to “Town of New Canaan.” Asked about it, Moynihan said he hadn’t instructed the assessor to make that change.
In any case, that designation likely would not be dispositive, should the ownership dispute regarding God’s Acre become a formal legal matter, Moynihan said. Both Moynihan and the committee have described the church’s formal opposition this summer as surprising.
Meanwhile, the Christmas Eve caroling at God’s Acre—which dates back 1916 and was started by the league Civic League, according to the historical record—is not in jeopardy of ending.
In fact, in his June email to the first selectman, the church’s pastor said, “[W]e appreciate the partnership we have with the town and the community, and we want to continue working together.”
Garner continued, “We will reach out to the committee working to support Caroling on God’s Acre to find ways our church can support their efforts in lieu of a terrace. We are willing to apply time, effort, and financial resources to maintain that beloved community tradition.”
Last Wednesday, Garner emailed the Congregational Church membership, noting local news coverage of the property/terrace issue and saying, “I am working with our church leadership team and trustees to understand a complex set of issues to formulate a thoughtful response that honors our church history while remaining in faithful partnership with the Town of New Canaan.”
“What I can share is how much we greatly appreciate the efforts of those in our New Canaan community who have come together to support ‘Caroling on God’s Acre’ in perpetuity,” the email said. “We fully support this beloved community tradition, and we look forward to working together with all involved to maintain Christmas Eve caroling here for generations to come.”
Reiterating some of what he’d already communicated to the town, Garner continued, “It is also important to note that God’s Acre is our church’s property, which was purchased in 1773 (27 years before the incorporation of our town) as an extension to our church’s burial ground. While the headstones were removed in the late 1800s in a beautification effort, there is no evidence that all the bodies were exhumed at that time. We have become concerned that some members of town leadership might not understand our history, nor appreciate our sacred responsibility to safeguard the memory and remains of our parishioners and pastors who have been laid to rest in our ancient burial ground.”
He said that church officials would update members on the ownership issue, among other matters, during an Oct. 11 meeting to be held via videoconference.