The Damned Story: Having been established in the 17th century, Center Church has seen its fair share of American history, including the founding of New Haven. What makes it unique, however, is that it is one of the few religious edifices anywhere to be built over a cemetery.
Let’s clarify this: There are lots of churches with crypts dug beneath them where important religious figures are interred; when it was time to build a new Center Church in 1812, the New Haven green had hundreds of graves already buried there, so rather than move the bodies and headstones, they literally erected the church on pillars to raise it up over the graves. The ground around the church and the green was then built up so it wasn’t sitting up high like a house on stilts.
Interesting/creepy historical note: The original burying ground in New Haven is the area that comprises most of the current green. When Grove Street cemetery was opened around the turn of the 19th century to ease the overcrowding of the original burying ground, most of the headstones (save for those under Center Church) were eventually moved there — the bodies were not! It’s estimated that the remains of between 5,000 and 10,000 early colonists still remain under the green. Think about that next time you spread out your blanket for the jazz fest!
Anyway, there are 137 known remains in Center Church’s crypt, dating back to 1687, including Margaret Arnold (Benedict Arnold’s first wife); President Rutherford B. Hayes’ family; Rev. James Pierpont, a founder of Yale University; and Sarah Rutherford Trowbridge, who has the oldest stone at 1687. Church officials believe there may be the remains of close to 1,000 people in the crypt.
Our Damned Experience: We visited Center Church in mid May of 2009 and toured the church and crypt. The tour began in the main hall of the church, where our guide told us a bit about the church’s history and the founding of New Haven.
The church itself is a bastion of fun historical tidbits. According to our guide, above the altar is “the oldest Tiffany stained glass window with a depiction of a gun in it in Connecticut” — her distinction, as apparently there’s another Tiffany stained glass window with a gun in Hartford, commissioned by the widow of Samuel Colt. Individual pews were rented out to specific parishioners to help raise funds to support the church; Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin, has #63. The Center Church organization is over 365 years old, although this particular building, the 4th built by the group, was built in 1812-14. In the vestibule of the church is a full list of all the people interred beneath it.
After talking about the church and its history, we were lead to the stairway leading down to the crypt. It’s very narrow and steep, and the ceiling is fairly low — even lower at the bottom of the stairs. Definitely a “watch your head at all times” and don’t stand up straight unless you’re under 5’5 tall (which none of us are) as there are numerous beams, vents, lights and other objects hanging from the ceiling. Also, as you might expect, many of the tombstones are in fragile condition after the centuries — they try to ventilate the crypt, but like any basement in New England, it’s quite damp, which has been helping to erode the stones.
As you can see from the images below, the crypt itself is a cramped space with tombstones laid out in no particular pattern. We snapped a number of photos while our guide — who was fairly knowledgeable about the history of the church, although not-so-much about the rest of early Connecticut history — kept peppering us with all sorts of information. Like all visitors, we were allowed to roam fairly freely around the crypt and able to inspect every and any headstone there.
One thing the guide told us that was interesting is the difference between wolf tables and tomb tables — the flat, table-like tombstones found in this crypt and in cemeteries throughout New England. Tomb tables are supposed to be a recreation of The Last Supper; wolf tables are supposed to prevent wolves and other critters from digging up dead bodies, a nice perk for your corpse if you could afford it.
In addition the information available on the website, Center Church provides visitors with fact sheets and historical points of interest.
If You Go: Appropriately, Center Church is located in the center of the New Haven green at 311 Temple Street. Tours of the crypt are offered on Thursdays and Saturdays from 11 to 1, April to October; the fee is a donation, amount of your choice. The tour itself seems to vary in length depending on the number of visitors and questions.
For photography buffs — the lighting in the crypt is not great; using a flash usually washes out the worn writing on the tombstones. The best shots are to be had with a tripod and a prolonged exposure (neither of which we used).