Historic tombstones tell a story of early Norwich

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Norwich - posted Mon., Jul. 8, 2013
Christ Church rector the Rev. Hugh James inspects one of the historic tombstones in storage at the church. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
Christ Church rector the Rev. Hugh James inspects one of the historic tombstones in storage at the church. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

A little-known chunk of Norwich history – actually, many little chunks, in the form of slate and granite tombstones – resides in the basement of Christ Episcopal Church waiting for an opportunity to see the light of day. The tombstones mark an interesting chapter in the church’s history, but are even more telling about the lives of the city’s earliest inhabitants.

The stones are a remnant of the church’s original burying ground, and most date to the latter half of the 18th century. The church’s history, compiled in 1981 by Elizabeth Sawyer, tells that the Episcopal sect, or Church of England, was a relative newcomer to the area, which had previously been dominated by settlers who were separatists. Christ Church was established at the lower end of what is now Washington Street in 1748 with a clapboard church structure.

Christ Church Rector Rev. Hugh James explained that the church’s connection with the English crown meant that it had to go underground in the 1770s, when revolutionary fervor swept through Norwich. “There is a story that the rector of his time [Rev. John Tyler] hid under the stairs to avoid being tarred and feathered,” Jamessaid. Interestingly, this same Rev. Tyler later served as orator at the memorial service held in Norwich to mark the death of George Washington.

After the revolution, in the late 1790s, a decision was made to move worship services to a new church on Main Street and turn the former church site into the parish burial ground. The congregation met for decades on the new site, first in a wood and later in a stone church, until the mid 1800s, when a decision was made to build yet another stone church, this time on the Washington Street graveyard site.

The cornerstone for the brown Portland sandstone church was laid in 1846, but not before “the bones were dug up and interred under the church” in a common grave, said James. “I’m told one of my predecessors is under the altar.” That predecessor is the same Rev. John Tyler, buried with his wife, Hannah, according to Sawyer’s history. The headstones and footstones from that cemetery are what currently reside in the church’s basement.

James explained that it was really only in this period that graves began to be viewed as permanent and stone vaults came into regular use. Prior to this, church regulations allowed gravesites to be re-used after 80 years, he said.

Because the stones were removed to storage before the worst of the Industrial Revolution and its accompanying pollution, they are in pristine condition, although they are stored in an environment which contains asbestos. Some of the stories they tell are heart-wrenching, like the triple headstone for the sons of James and Sybil Stephens. The couple lost three small boys in the course of three years: the youngest lived a mere 18 days. “Sleep, sweet babes, and take thy rest; God called thee home, He thought it best,” reads the inscription.

Church records include an elegantly hand-lettered booklet documenting the stones’ inscriptions, created at the time of the burying ground’s removal. A copy of the book is also housed in the state library in Hartford.

James said that while the church itself needs some restoration work, he hoped to eventually raise the funds to allow the tombstones to be displayed properly for public, “to somehow dignify these stones. They probably could become a sort of tourist attraction,” he said

Let us know what you think!
Please be as specific as possible.
Include your name and email if you would like a response back.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the code without spaces and pay attention to upper/lower case.