‘We Have To Resolve It’: First Selectman Says Ownership of God’s Acre Must Be Established

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New Canaan’s highest elected official says he doesn’t understand why a church located adjacent to God’s Acre believes it has an ownership claim on the historic property. 

Responding to a proposal that earned multiple town approvals last year, the Congregational Church of New Canaan this summer said it would block a plan to install a permanent stone terrace directly opposite Park Street from its front door, according to the group behind the project.

Though the proposed “Founders Terrace” is not a municipal project, strictly speaking, according to First Selectman Kevin Moynihan, the town has taken up the ownership issue.

“We haven’t resolved anything,” Moynihan told NewCanaanite.com in an interview when asked about the status of the ownership dispute. 

“But we have to resolve it. We can’t just let it hang out there. It’s a property in the center of town. Why is the town spending taxpayer dollars to maintain if we don’t have responsibility for it? I am trying to figure it out. If I knew what the Congregational Church’s position was, I would be able to have a fuller picture. But we researched from our side. All the papers I see say it was a community cemetery that the town of New Canaan is responsible for. I seriously do not understand why they think they have an ownership interest.”

Church officials declined to comment when reached by NewCanaanite.com.

Purchased for three pounds in 1773 and deeded to “the Proprietors of the Parish of Canaan,” what is known today as God’s Acre was to be a cemetery for “public benefit for the whole community,” Mary Louise King writes in her 1981 history “Portrait of New Canaan.” Historians believe that bodies are still buried there, though the group behind the proposed terrace has said a sonar scan showed nothing buried on the would-be site of the 18-by-36-foot patio itself.

In a March 2019 email, obtained by NewCanaanite.com through a public records request, title searcher and historian Andrew Melillo told Moynihan that the 1773 deed makes the town of New Canaan—not the Church—owner of God’s Acre.

“A lot of times people today read the word Parish and automatically presume it signifies the church as that is how we refer to the church or church neighborhoods today (more so in Boston, etc),” Melillo said in the email. “So when it comes to the issue of title, it is clear. The People of Canaan Parish, therefore the Town, not the Church.” (Melillo in December 2019 was appointed to the town’s Historical Review Committee.)

Meanwhile, the terrace project appears to have stalled out—Moynihan said, “We do not want to fight with the Congregational Church”—though questions regarding God’s Acre are persisting.

Last month, the designated “owner” of God’s Acre on the town’s tax assessor field card was changed from the generic “cemetery” to “Town of New Canaan.” According to the documents obtained by NewCanaanite.com, Moynihan on Aug. 18 looped the town’s tax assessor in on an email string from early-2019 that includes Melillo’s research concluding that the town owns God’s Acre.

Asked whether a change to the ownership designation on the field card was made at that time, First Selectman Kevin Moynihan said yes.

Asked why he copied the assessor into an email string from more than one year before, Moynihan said, “Because since like May or June or July we have been talking to the Congregational Church since the Congregational Church suddenly said we don’t want the platform to be built. So I have been researching the history and others have been researching the history of God’s Acre, and trying to understand why the Congregational Church thinks what they do. My job is to protect the interest of the town.”

Asked whether he instructed Assessor Sebastian Calderella to make the change to the designated owner, Moynihan said no.

“To my surprise, Sebbie made that change without telling [then-Administrative Officer] Tom Stadler, without telling me,” Moynihan said. “He’s a very independent fellow.” 

(Stadler at the time not only worked for the town but also is a member of the committee behind the terrace project, as is his successor, Tucker Murphy, who now works as Moynihan’s administrative officer.)

Moynihan said that prior to 2016, the “Town of New Canaan” had been listed in the assessor database as the owner of God’s Acre and other burial grounds in the municipality. The designation was changed to “cemetery” for similar burial grounds except in cases where there was a deed showing a different owner, Moynihan said. (Cemeteries on Frogtown, Laurel and Parade Hill Roads still have the “cemetery” designation.)

The assessor field card designation itself wouldn’t be dispositive if the ownership dispute between the town and church became a formal legal matter, according to Moynihan.

“This tax record doesn’t mean too much, it’s not a determinant of anything,” he said.

The committee formally introduced plans for the 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.

A March 22, 2019 email that Bill Gardner sent to Moynihan 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.”

Melillo in his email said it is “very likely” that there are burials on God’s Acre.

“Can we know for sure? Not unless we dig,” Melillo said in his email. “Is digging a good idea? I do not think so, as it will be costly, time-consuming and disrespectful.”

Gardner also addressed the question of ownership.

“Some have stated that the Congregational Church of New Canaan deeded God’s Acre to the Town of New Canaan,” Gardner said. “However, nobody seems to be able to produce a deed. It is quite possible that the Congregational Church of New Canaan continues to be the fee owner of God’s Acre. Nevertheless, whoever owns God’s Acre has to contend with the fact that it continues to be a cemetery.”

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