Town, Church Reach Agreement on God’s Acre


Caroling at God's Acre. December 30, 1976. John Bukovick photo, courtesy of the New Canaan Historical Society

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The Board of Selectmen during its most recent meeting voted in favor of an agreement that’s expected to bring a lengthy legal battle between the town and Congregational Church of New Canaan to a close.

The agreement (which can be read here in full) sets aside the question of who owns God’s Acre—a question that First Selectman Kevin Moynihan raised amid the legal dispute—and calls for creation of a four-person committee to make decisions about the hallowed New Canaan property, a burial ground for the town’s founders.

Selectman Kathleen Corbet during the Board’s July 25 meeting cited this sentence from the agreement—“Whereas, for at least two centuries the church, the town and New Canaan residents have honored, maintained and enjoyed God’s Acre in a respectful and harmonious manner”—saying, “I feel this agreement moves forward with those intentions.”

Selectman Nick Williams added, “It’s an elegant and simple solution.”

The selectmen voted 3-0 to accept it. 

A dispute first arose in 2020, when the church opposed a town-backed plan to construct a stone terrace at the top of God’s Acre, saying that they were the legal owners of the property. The church’s claim was questioned by Moynihan, who noted that the town spends taxpayer dollars maintaining the parcel. 

While evidence has since been discovered by attorneys representing the Congregational Church that supports their claim to ownership, the new policy that both parties have agreed upon will override any previous claim to ownership in favor of both parties agreeing to hold joint stewardship of the property.

Under the agreement, the New Canaan assessor’s field card for God’s Acre is to revert to a cemetery designation (“ancient burial place”) for the property (that designation had been changed at Moynihan’s direction during the legal dispute that has cost New Canaan taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars).

The agreement, signed July 25 by town and church officials, also calls for just four community events to be held annually on God’s Acre—Christmas Caroling, Hanukkah Celebration, Veterans Day Ceremony and Erection of an Easter Cross.

It’s unclear whether the agreement will allow for creation of the originally proposed flagstone terrace at the top of the hill.

The new committee will be responsible for “resolving issues related to the operation, maintenance or activities on God’s Acre” and “deciding whether any activity shall be permitted on God’s Acre” and “deciding any other issues not covered in this agreement.” Committee decisions must be unanimous, under the agreement. The group will be composed of New Canaan first selectman, Town Council chair, chair of the church’s Board of Trustees and the church’s senior minister, according to the agreement.

The town will continue to be responsible for maintenance of God’s Acre as it always has been, including tasks such as lawn maintenance and tree trimming, under the agreement.

In a message to the Congregational Church family, Senior Minister the Rev. Dr. Stephen Chapin Garner thanked a team of respected church members who “worked tirelessly and faithfully on our behalf,” saying “this amicable agreement results from their efforts.”

Garner’s message concludes: “We can now move on from this matter to other pressing church business – thanks be to God!”

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