WOONSOCKET – The Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission is asking the owner of a Cato Street lot to take steps to preserve a portion of the site after three graves were discovered on the property late last month.
In a letter to Woonsocket Building Inspector Lawrence Enright, Jeffrey Emidy, interim executive director for the RIHPHC, confirmed the discovery and said the agency had reviewed an archaeological report from a recent excavation. After reviewing the report, Emidy wrote, the agency has decided to treat all three of the potential graves at the site as burials, including one that was confirmed and two that were suspected based on the findings of the excavation.
“For the purposes of our review, we are considering all three as burials,” he said.
Emidy went on to recommend several protective measures, including refilling and marking the graves with granite cemetery markers, placing snow fencing and installing metal sheeting over the graves to protect them from future disturbance. No construction activities, he wrote, should be allowed within the fenced off areas.
The graves were discovered when JG Remodeling, the lot’s owner, hired Archaeological Consulting Services to conduct a survey of the property on Oct. 18. Though accounts differ on who first identified the lot as a potential cemetery, Ingris Guerrero, one of the company’s owners, said the city building inspector told her to reach out to the state historic preservation commission for direction on how to proceed when they attempted to apply for building permits. Guerrero and her husband, Jose, had been hoping to build a duplex on the property.
Though Guerrero initially expressed interest in relocating the graves, the Oct. 27 RIHPHC letter indicated the owners have since decided to keep the burials in place. That solution, Emidy wrote, is satisfactory to the RIHPHC, provided that no parking or other construction activities takes place over the graves.
“As leaving the burials in place would mean construction within 25 feet of a historic cemetery, prohibited by state cemetery law, the property owners must request for a variance to the law from the city,” he wrote.
Guerrero confirmed those plans to The Breeze by phone, saying the couple hope to move forward with their plan to construct a duplex on the portion of the property where the graves were not discovered.
“We’re going to respect them,” she said. “The part where we’re going to build is clean. It looks like the cemetery was on the left side, not the right.”
Emidy directed a request for comment to Charlotte Taylor, the RIHPHC archaeologist who serves as the agency’s contact on the matter. Taylor explained that the Baptist Hill Cemetery, as the plot was known, was built prior to the passage of state law protecting cemeteries.
“It was only in the 1990s that cemeteries were protected in Rhode Island. Before then, you could just bulldoze them,” she said.
Local cemetery advocates believe the Baptist Hill Cemetery was constructed in the 1830s and later abandoned, leaving graves to be built over or moved to other plots. Greg Duhamel, a local cemetery volunteer and member of the Blackstone Valley Historical Society, has conducted extensive research on the lot. Duhamel said he’s come across a survey that lists 15 known burial plots in the cemetery as of the 1890s. At least four of those, he said, were later relocated, but several others remain unaccounted for.
Duhamel and the Rev. Ken Postle, cemetery coordinator for the Blackstone Valley Historical Society, have both expressed concerns about the future care of the plot. Postle told The Breeze he would have liked to see one of the graves relocated to be closer to the other two to make the three easier to protect from development. As it stands, two of the graves suspected of containing children’s remains are located toward the front of the property, while a third is located in a separate fenced-off area toward the rear.
“The optimum would’ve been to move the body in the back up with the kids, thereby giving the new owner that whole area of land to do what they wanted with,” Postle said.
Postle and Duhamel also expressed concern that the language in the letter would allow the owner to build a parking lot in between the burials. Guerrero told The Breeze on Monday she and her husband plan to avoid the area entirely and construct a parking lot behind the duplex on the right side of the property.
Others have also expressed concern about the future of the cemetery. Susan Joyce, an immediate neighbor to the lot, contacted The Breeze last week to express concern that the graves had still not been filled in nine days after the initial excavation. Joyce said she was worried the burial sites had been left open to potential vandals and kids in the neighborhood.
Craig Chartier, an archaeologist for ACS, confirmed to The Breeze that he returned to the site late last week to fill in the graves and mark them with stones. As of Monday, the two areas containing graves were mostly level with the rest of the property and marked with caution tape.
Taylor said the measures laid out in the letter are recommendations, and the city would have the ultimate authority on whether to enforce them. According to Enright, the property owners will need to seek a variance from the City Council in order to build within 25 feet of the historic cemetery.
“Our preferred outcome is the graves are clearly marked and clearly protected and just left to be there,” Taylor said.
Duhamel said the Blackstone Valley Historical Society hopes to place a monument and hold a dedication ceremony at the cemetery once construction is complete. He’s hoping the city might be willing to kick in some funding for the marker but said he plans to hold a fundraiser if necessary.
“This would truly be the best thing that could occur for the local community here in Woonsocket, especially with some of the earliest immigrants who gave up so much to call that neighborhood their home in the early 1800s,” he said.