Church basement yields trove of headstones

Norwich - Several years ago, Christ Episcopal Church property warden Stanley Stanley was working on the gas furnace in the dirt basement when he felt a poke in the back.

He reached around and pulled a human femur out of the dirt, then a rib bone.

"I didn't go digging around there anymore," said Stanley, now retired at age 82.

On Tuesday, several volunteers were in the church basement, but instead of digging up bones they were after some of the best-preserved Colonial-era headstones in New England.

Under the direction of historical cemetery expert David Oat, volunteers from the church and the Norwich Historical Society combed through the Christ Church cellar with flashlights and a hand truck.

Dozens of bodies were buried in a parish cemetery on that land over the century before the current church was built from 1846 to 1848, and the hand-carved headstones now stashed in the cellar at one time marked their graves.

A pamphlet on church history offers a succinct version of the story. The land on lower Washington Street where Christ Church now stands was donated to the parish in 1734 by Benijah Bushnell. The first church was built there, but eventually the parish moved to Main Street. In 1847 the parish decided - in a vote that literally split the parish in two - to move back to the original plot "once the burying ground was removed."

Bones and stones

The pamphlet said the remains were interred in a mass grave and "the headstones and footstones were, and still are, stored in the cellar."

But it wasn't that neat.

"We think a majority of the bones are buried under the altar," Stanley said.

When he found the femur and rib, Stanley brought them to the Rev. Scott Hankins, who wrapped them in plastic, blessed the bones and reburied them in the same area.

Headstones large and small, intact and broken, are stacked in every corner and crevice in the cellar. More stones lean against those stacks and against old pieces of wooden church pews, themselves intricately carved.

"I've been wanting to do this for quite some time," said Oat, a board member on the Connecticut Gravestone Network and an expert on Colonial gravestone carvers and cemeteries.

Church members and leaders gave permission for what Oat estimated will be a month-long project to remove the headstones, clean them, photograph and document the inscriptions and types of stone used by the carvers. The stones then will be returned to the basement and stored in a more orderly fashion and the information posted on the church's website.

Oat, Mike and Dianne Brown of the Norwich Historical Society, church sexton Crystal Young and volunteer Tabatha Greczkowski set up shop on a small, grassy area Tuesday. With a brush and dish soap, they planned to clean the stones but were pleased to discover that most didn't need it. They used a tall mirror to direct sunlight onto the inscriptions for clearer photographs.

Within an hour, they had results. Vermont white marble, a popular stone in the early 1800s, has become blackened over the centuries in New England outdoor cemeteries. Here, the bright white marble glistened.

Colonial carvers David Lamb Sr. and Jr. used unknown local stone that has turned rose-colored over the centuries outdoors, Oat said. Experts have long speculated that the stone originally was the color of dark chocolate.

"And that's what we're finding here," he said.

Rare carving

In the cellar, Oat pointed his flashlight at the slate headstone of Alice Hall, who died March 3, 1757, perhaps his best discovery of the day. The arched top bore the plain round face of a skull with wings on either side. Ornate swirled patterns formed the edge borders.

"That's the only winged skull I know of in Norwich," he said.

Oat has found several such headstones in Colonial-era cemeteries in Preston and Windham bearing the powerful symbol of death and afterlife, but none in Norwich.

"Wait till you see this one. It's in perfect condition," Young shouted, emerging from the basement for help in carrying a stone too big for the hand truck.

"In Memory of Mr. Bently Faulkner who departed this life March 5th 1776. Aged 42 years," read the gray granite stone carved by Josiah Manning of Franklin.

Oat got another surprise Tuesday when Young brought him to a higher-level basement area and opened the door of a stairwell closet. Two headstones were cemented into the floor at the side, and behind huge modern ventilation ductwork more stones could be seen stashed against the wall. More lay flat on the ground beneath the ductwork.

"I don't know how we're going to get those out," Oat said.

Young said she found the stones when she was doing some renovations of the cluttered closet. She hurriedly ripped out the drywall to get at the stones and eagerly showed Oat her discovery.

"Every project has its surprises," Oat said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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