In response to Mayor Melham’s appearances in the local news at the former Dutch Reformed Church (now La Senda Antigua), Belleville town historian Michael Perrone has issued a press release to clarify some facts surrounding the church, the historical significance of the site, and those who are buried on the church grounds.
Among the Mayor’s curious statements to the press was the following:
“Belleville was a place that accepted these Chinese workers with open arms,” Mayor Michael Melham said. “Belleville was the site of the first Chinatown on the East Coast. If there are workers in the ground under the church, we want to recognize their historical significance and give them a proper burial, if possible.”
The remains beneath the basement are not archaeological curiosities, nor are they in any way improperly buried. The church was last expanded in the mid 1800’s, and now covers a portion of the original cemetery. The individuals beneath the church basement were deliberately laid to rest in that cemetery more than 150 years ago.
Michael Perrone is the President of the Belleville Historical Society, and for almost two decades has been almost solely responsible for the significant research behind the early American history of the church, the identities and history of the Revolutionary War veterans and the Chinese immigrants buried there, as well as the restoration and upkeep of the very old cemetery which pre-dates the founding of the country.
Here is Michael’s statement on the matter.
The Dutch Reformed Church was established in Belleville in 1697. The church has been rebuilt three times since then. The current church was built in 1853.
In order to build this much larger church, it was necessary to build over part of the original cemetery.
The cemetery area under the church is the final resting place of members of the congregation from the 18th and 19th centuries. The main cemetery behind the church includes graves from 1738 to 1994.
Unfortunately the church did not keep burial records. Only baptism and marriage were kept as they were church sacraments. Burial records were kept by families of the deceased. There is no way to identify any members of the congregation buried in what is now the church basement.
The church basement is not an archaeological site – it is part of the church cemetery. Only next of kin can exhume remains if they know the specific location of the grave, which no one does, since there are no markers or records.
There is no way to identify anyone whether they are revolutionary war soldiers or Chinese. Based on church history we know the identity of a few buried under the church, but not specifically where they are buried. The Revolutionary War era Pastor Geraudus Haughort and militia leader Captain Abraham Spear and later the Chinese members of the congregation are known to be buried somewhere under the church.
The church cemetery is the final resting place of 68 Revolutionary War soldiers. While this is a large number, it is NOT the largest group in the US.
All of their names are engraved on the George Washington monument behind the church. Some of the grave sites are known because the original stones exist and can still be read.
The church basement is filled with mountains of coal ash from the old furnace which heated the church. The ash was simply dumped on the ground covering more than 80% of the burial area. It had been our hope and expectation for many years that once the area was cleaned up the site could be scanned with ground penetrating radar. The church has many desperate situations which needs from the heating system to the windows and stone work and roof. The recent visit with ground scanning radar was limited in their ability to scan the ground in the church basement.
Nonetheless the work the Rutgers group were able to do was a good start and greatly appreciated, and hopefully they will be able to continue once the area is eventually cleaned up.
The Belleville Historical Society has been active in helping to maintain and raise much needed funds for the church and cemetery for the last twenty years. Completely restoring the largely abandoned cemetery from 2002-2004, building the first monument for the Revolutionary War soldiers and launching an extensive research project resulting in the discovery of Belleville’s rich Chinese-American history.
The Belleville Historical Society is once again appealing for donations to help with the many needed church repairs, primarily the church steeple, which was damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and has yet to be repaired.
Donations in any amount can be sent to:
La Senda Antigua
171 Main St
Belleville, NJ 07109
We have also set up fundraisers for “Belleville Historic Church” on GoFundMe and Facebook.
For more information, contact Belleville Historical Society president Michael Perrone at 973-780-7852 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Please help preserve this most important piece of early American history in Belleville, and consider making a donation to the church. No contribution is too small. Thank you!
Update Nov 22: The Observer has kindly published their frontpage newspaper article on their website for us to share online (thank you Kevin Canessa):