Working Together, Cemetery Can Be Saved
Both Sides Basically in Agreement Regarding Dutch Church
Last week we reported on a controversy involving the cemetery at the Dutch Reformed Church, a remarkable local landmark that really deserves to be a stop on a tour of national historic places -- yet somehow isn’t. I use the word “controversy” reluctantly, because if everyone concerned just stopped, took a breath, and simply talked to one another, they would discover that they’re really not as far apart on this as they seem to think they are.
For two years the church has been home to a Christian congregation led by Pastor Miguel Ortiz, who is spearheading an effort to restore the site after years of neglect. In doing so, Ortiz and his fellow congregants have been working in the church cemetery, where lie the bones of dozens of veterans of the Revolutionary War. When someone was seen operating a backhoe at the site last weekend, an uproar ensued, with local historic preservationists and township officials alarmed that the memory of those dead was literally being trampled underfoot.
When I spoke to Ortiz, he insisted he has no interest in wrecking what is probably Belleville’s most direct link to its significant role in the American Revolution. Instead, he is simply trying to restore the site so that it’s safe and suitable for an active congregation once again (it had been used for years by the Dutch Reformed Church, which sold the property after the small congregation decided it could no longer handle the upkeep).
Personally, I take Ortiz at his word. He’s already demonstrated good faith by allowing the township to hold ceremonies at the property, including one this past Memorial Day. He has carefully set aside headstones and other pieces dislodged during the cleanup. As a religious person, Ortiz also seems well aware that this a graveyard, consecrated ground that should be treated as such.
And, it has to be said, before Ortiz and his fellow church members came along, there was no concerted, sustained effort to clean the site up. While volunteers have maintained graves and did repair work to the steeple, the entire site was nevertheless in danger of falling into hopeless disrepair. Having owners who are actively trying to maintain the church and keep it habitable is no bad thing -- in fact, it may be the best chance in years to actually save the site for future generations.
I’m sure township officials would agree if they actually met with the congregation, in an official capacity, to talk about how to balance the needs of the church and the desire to ensure that a priceless historic resource is saved. Local volunteers, including Belleville’s historical society, could and should be part of that conversation. Also involved should be experts in historic preservation, say from Rutgers or another institution.
While there might be details to be worked out, everyone here basically wants the same thing. So find the political will, Belleville Township Council, and talk to the church’s latest owners. Just a few meetings can go a long way towards saving the historic past so it can be enjoyed far into the future.