April 23, 2021
Dear Church Family,
This has been quite a full year for us! As I head out on sabbatical May 1, I am heartened that so much work has been accomplished this past year, as well as advanced planning for the year that is to come. There is, however, one important issue that has yet to be resolved that will require continued conversation throughout the summer. In conjunction with our legal counsel, Trustees will continue to engage the town in deliberation over our First Selectman’s assertion that the Town of New Canaan owns God’s Acre. In the past few weeks, we have shared a fair amount of documentation about God’s Acre history with our town officials in response to a commitment from all our Selectmen to approach the issue with open minds and genuine interest in understanding our history and the history of our ancient burial ground across the street from our Meeting House. Additionally, I recognize that many of our church members and friends may not know the original purpose, or our church’s stewardship, of God’s Acre that dates back to 1736. Five years after the founding of “Canaan Parish” and sixty-five years before the incorporation of the Town of New Canaan.
So, as I take leave for a little time of rest and renewal, I wanted to share a sampling of the facts about God’s Acre from our church archives and the New Canaan Historical Society archives. For our history buffs, and for those who hold God’s Acre dear, I hope this brief history will prove interesting and informative.
In 1965, a New Canaan Advertiser article stated, “the Historical Society believes that New Canaan’s Annual Christmas Carolers at God’s Acre are standing over unmarked graves.” [i] In reference to the ancient burial ground there, “God’s Acre” dates back nearly to the founding of Canaan Parish. As a Christian, a pastor of our church, and a proud resident of New Canaan, it is a delight to know that our town sings carols of our Christian faith over the resting place of so many of the original saints of our church every Christmas Eve.
As you have no doubt heard me reference before, the location of our church and the old burial ground referred to as “God’s Acre” was selected primarily for theological reasons. Our Congregational ancestors who founded our town chose this hill for our church and cemetery because each morning God’s Acre is wonderfully illuminated by the rising sun. The sun is an important symbolic and daily reminder for our members, past and present, of the rising of God’s Son, and the Easter promise of resurrection. The hill was the ideal location to inter the remains and remember the lives of the faithfully departed of our community.
According to the New Canaan Historical Society, the earliest recorded burial on the God’s Acre hill was in 1736, when Anna Beard Eells, the first pastor’s wife, died.[ii] Her gravestone is said to reside in the archives of the Historical Society. In 1773, the church wanted to formally extend its burial ground to the base of the hill, and thus, it was decided that our church seek to acquire the triangle of property directly across from our Meeting House. Historical Society documents indicate that there was some confusion as to the rightful owner of the parcel at the time, due to property transfers that had already taken place since the Parish’s founding in 1731.[iii] To this end, Captain Samuel Hanford, a leading member of our church, went to the Proprietors of Norwalk for approval of the purchase. There is a notation in the Proprietors Book in Norwalk in 1773 citing that Hanford was seeking “an addition to the burying-place at Canaan.” The Proprietor’s vote reads as follows: “Granted to the inhabitance of Canaan Parish the sum of sixty shillings, New York money, towards an addition to their burial place.” [iv] A deed was shortly drawn up on behalf of the two most likely owners of the triangular property — William Boult and Johnathan Husted — and it was granted to the Proprietors of the Canaan Parish for the sum previously agreed upon with the Norwalk Proprietors. The cemetery was in continual use until it reached capacity with the burial of Mary Hanford in 1857.[v]
An unfortunately silent chapter of God’s Acre history began when the headstones on the hill were removed, somewhere between the 1870’s and 1880’s. The prevailing belief is that our ancient burial ground had become overgrown, and in an effort of civic pride around our Nation’s Centennial, the community cleaned up the hill and relocated the headstones to Parade Hill, and then Lakeview Cemetery, where many of the headstones reside to this day. There are no records of any human remains being relocated at that time, which, according to State Archeologist, Dr. Sarah Sportman, was not an uncommon practice in the 1800’s in New England. A 1925 Connecticut Superior Court case involving the mishandling of these stones at the Parade Hill Cemetery, states that the stones were moved from God’s Acre years before without relocating the graves themselves.[vi]
In 1908, in an effort to re-mark the hill as a church cemetery, The Congregational Church of New Canaan placed a stone marker embossed with “God’s Acre” near the top of the hill.[vii] “God’s Acre” is a well-known 17th-century term delineating an ancient church burial ground.
In 1923, the Town of New Canaan’s War Memorial Committee approached the church and requested that the Town’s War Memorial, the Wayside Cross, be allowed to be placed at the base of the ancient burial ground. After thoughtful discussion, our church Trustees voted to support the effort, and the decision was announced to our church members the very next Sunday by The Rev. Dr. James Howard Hoyt.[viii]
Since that time, the church and the town have collaborated on the care and maintenance of the ancient burial ground. It has a rich and complicated history, perhaps best summed up by beloved town historian Mary Louise King in the New Canaan Historical Society’s 1973 publication The Making of Main Street. King captured the complex history of God’s Acre, stating: “it is still classified as a cemetery, owned by the Congregational Church, protected by state law, cared for by the town.” [ix]
In my tenure as your pastor, I have so loved witnessing and participating in the numerous church and civic events that take place on our sacred hill. Caroling on God’s Acre, Memorial and Veterans Day services of remembrance, the lighting of the Menorah for Hanukkah, and the placing of the Cross during Lent through Eastertide are all beloved traditions in our town and church community. I am confident that our church’s many pastors and parishioners buried on that hill would take great joy in the central and very special place God’s Acre has in our town and in our hearts. And, with every new sunrise, we are reminded of their lives, their memory, and the Easter promise of resurrection we all hold dear!
Yours in Christ,
[i] New Canaan Advertiser, February, 1965.
[ii] New Canaan Advertiser, February, 1965.
[iii] The New Canaan Historical Society ANNUAL January 1965, Volume V, Number 5, p. 20.
[iv] The New Canaan Historical Society ANNUAL January 1965, Volume V Number 5, p. 20; The Making of Main Street, by Mary Louise King, The New Canaan Historical Society, 1971, p. 7.
[v] The Making of Main Street, by Mary Louise King, The New Canaan Historical Society, 1971, p. 9.
[vi] The New Canaan Historical Society ANNUAL January 1965, Volume V, Number 5, p. 37.
[vii] Trustee Minutes for The Congregational Church of New Canaan, July 1, 1908.
[viii] Trustee Minutes for The Congregational Church of New Canaan, March 1923.
[ix] The Making of Main Street, by Mary Louise King, The New Canaan Historical Society, 1971, pp. 6-7.