- The Washington Times - Monday, August 2, 2004

WORCESTER (AP) — The city of Worcester plans to build a skating rink over part of a historic Puritan burial site, angering residents whose forebears are buried in what is now the last remaining section of Worcester’s historic Common.

Civic leaders envisioned the open rink as the centerpiece of a two-year, $5 million overhaul of the park that began in May.

But members of the First Congregational Church asked the state Historical Commission to revoke its approval of the project after workers uncovered headstones, saying the ice rink violates a century-old promise to maintain the land with “respect and dignity.”

Worcester’s Common, which dates to 1669, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The city parks department says it was the scene of the first reading of the Declaration of Independence in New England, and militia members drilled on the Common during the Revolutionary War.

It also was the location of the Old South Meeting House, a combination church and civic center, and the town burial ground, but eventually the graveyard was covered over. In 1883, the city seized the church’s site by eminent domain, compensating the church with $115,000.

The city pledged then to maintain the parcel with “respect and dignity,” and church officials argue that a skating rink would violate that agreement.

“We were taken aback,” said the Rev. James R. Cote, moderator of the 140-member church. “My wife’s family and other families in the congregation are descendants of people buried there.”

The Common was originally about 20 acres, but only about 4 acres remain, largely the area of the graveyard and church.

According to the state historical commission, at least 232 bodies are buried there, but city officials have insisted that no graves would be disturbed during the renovation, which will include new plantings, paths, the installation of 19th-century style lighting, and removal of the reflecting pool.

“Our reading of that study, which is 1.5 inches thick, is they will dig up somebody wherever they dig on the Common,” Mr. Cote said.

Mayor Timothy P. Murray said many residents support the rink project as part of the plan to revitalize the Common.

“It’s not a very functional Common. There’s just no green space, it’s not inviting,” he said.

Mr. Murray said any bodies found at the site could be moved to another cemetery, “showing as much respect as possible.”

City officials notified the state historical commission, and work on the rink has been halted to give archaeologists another opportunity to survey the area. Graves are protected under state law, said commission spokesman Brian McNiff.

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