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Progress continues at Newark Union Church and Cemetery

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Larry Nagengast
/
Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media's Tom Byrne and contributor Larry Nagengast discuss progress on restoration and preservation at Newark Union Church and Cemetery

“When you look back,” Anne Daly says, “it’s like ‘Wow.’”

She is hardly alone in her assessment of what she and her husband Bob, along with the rest of the board of the nonprofit Newark Union Corporation and a steady stream of volunteers, have accomplished in the past year to restore a historic church and cemetery in Brandywine Hundred.

“Through the Dalys’ activism and energy, and their care for the site, it has become a very vibrant place,” says New Castle County Councilman John Cartier, whose eastern Brandywine Hundred district includes the church and cemetery, whose history can be traced back to a 1682 land grant from William Penn to an Irish Quaker named Valentine Hollingsworth.

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Larry Nagengast
/
Delaware Public Media
Anne and Bob Daly

“The Dalys are a godsend,” Cartier says. “They’ve taken up stewardship of the site with amazing energy.”

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the Dalys’ ability to marshal support,” says Brandywine Hundred historian James R. Hanby Sr., whose ancestors worshiped at the church and are buried in the cemetery. “This site has captured the imagination of the community.”

The church and cemetery are tucked away inside a quiet residential area within the otherwise bustling Brandywine Hundred. It’s just a block off Baynard Boulevard, one of the numerous connecting roads named for prominent farming families in the area. While neither the church nor the cemetery had fallen into disrepair, both needed some tender loving care when the Dalys, both retired DuPonters, moved north from Middletown four years ago into a house across the street from the church.

Not long after they met Jean Weldin, a member of one of those venerable Brandywine Hundred families. Many Weldins had worshiped in the 1845 church and had been buried in the cemetery, and Jean and her husband Ray were leaders of the Newark Union Corporation. They were looking for someone to take over their stewardship, and the Dalys agreed.

Work on restoring the church and improving the cemetery began early last year, and the pace accelerated by summer.

The changes are striking to state Rep. Debra Heffernan, whose eastern Brandywine Hundred district includes the property. “It’s like night and day,” says Heffernan, recalling what the church and cemetery looked like a few years ago.

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Larry Nagengast
/
Delaware Public Media
Newark Union Church - July 2021 (left) - Newark Union Church - May 2022 (right)

Improvements at the church include:

  • Removing, restoring and reinstalling seven massive lancet windows and two smaller ones.
  • Installing a new cedar shake roof.
  • Repairing and repainting the stucco exterior.
  • Putting a stone frame around the 1845 date stone near the peak of the roof.
  • Repointing the chimney.
  • Adding drainage gutters, a first for the church.
  • Repairing the soffits.
  • Repairing a transom window.
  • Replacing clapboard in the foyer.

That was just the outside. Efforts are now focused on the church’s interior. Ceiling tiles, part of a 20th-century renovation, have been removed, opening up a view through the beams of the 1845 rafters that are now being cleaned.
“We’ve removed the mold and mildew. Now the smell is gone, and it’s fresh and clean,” Bob Daly says.

Old paint has been scraped off the walls, the plaster has been repaired and wainscoting is being installed. Also on the way is something that wasn’t available for original construction or the 1906 renovation: air conditioning.

Work on restoring the pews will begin in June, Daly says. Only four are now in the church; the other 17 are being stored temporarily in a neighbor’s garage.

A museum and a meeting place

The interior improvements are designed to facilitate the church’s transition into a multipurpose facility for public use.

“We want to be able to show what the church was like,” Daly says.

While the COVID-19 pandemic and, more recently, the war in Ukraine have impacted supply chains locally and worldwide, these circumstances have led to much of the interior work moving slightly ahead of schedule.

“When Ukraine started, we told our craftspeople to order their supplies and materials,” Anne Daly says. In several instances, the craftspeople offered to come in early because they were unable to work on their other jobs. “The paint scraping was done ahead of schedule, so the plaster guy came in a week early…. The electrical was going to be done in late May, and the HVAC in June, but they’ve come in early to do their prep work,” she says.

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Larry Nagengast
/
Delaware Public Media
Work on the interior of Newark Union Church, including restored lancet windows, will make the space suitable for meetings and wedding, while also serving as a museum

By the end of the year, or early 2023, the church should be ready to serve three distinct roles: a venue for weddings and nondenominational services; a site for community meetings; and a museum. The museum itself would have three themes, the Dalys say: telling the story of the wars in which veterans buried in the cemetery had fought; depicting life in the 19th century in Brandywine Hundred and telling the history of the prominent families associated with the church and cemetery.

Among the items already collected for the museum, Bob Daly says, are a Revolutionary War cannonball and a Civil War canteen as well as a 19th-century spinning wheel, drill press and waffle iron. They have also located property deeds dating back to 1802 and an 1875 ledger book that records tax payments and lists children eligible to attend the local school.

“We want to show what it was like in 1845, and also 1906. We want to show as much as we can from both periods,” he says.

Also in the works are a 16- by 20-foot Quaker shed, and an outdoor restroom featuring an electric-powered compost toilet. Both will be erected to the east of the church.

The idea is to use the shed to store items that would have to be moved around for different functions. For example, pews would get in the way of museum displays, which would have to be removed for weddings.

In addition, a replica carriage house, like those common outside old Quaker meetinghouses, will be built near the front of the church, alongside the cemetery wall. An accessory for the carriage house is already on site: a month or so ago, someone dropped off a trough carved from stone, probably used for horses to quench their thirst, with the engraving “Thomas Robinson 1795” on its front.

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Larry Nagengast
/
Delaware Public Media
A stone trough was dropped off at the Newark Union Church and will be incorporated into restoration and preservation work

The origin of the trough will require further research, Anne Daly says. The cemetery wall includes a stone Inscribed “CR 1787,” referring to stonemason Charles Robinson, a great-grandson of Valentine Hollingsworth, and the year he repaired the wall. The Dalys hope to determine whether Charles and Thomas Robinson are related. (One clue might be outside the Robinson House, at the corner of Philadelphia Pike and Naamans Road in Claymont. The Delaware Public Archives historic marker there says the house was owned by Philadelphia merchant Thomas Robinson and his descendants from the 1740s until 1851.)

Refreshing the cemetery

From the front of the church, a flagstone path will be laid into the cemetery, past the large monument to Valentine Hollingsworth, and extend to the veterans’ memorial, completed last year, and a memory garden, now nearing completion.

The veterans’ memorial includes an illuminated flagpole, donated Daylight Electric, owned by the Day family, whose members are buried in the cemetery, and a monument, paid for by a New Castle County grant, featuring the insignia of the five military branches in which veterans buried in the cemetery have served.

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Larry Nagengast
/
Delaware Public Media
Military memorial at the Newark Union Cenetery features insignias representing five branches of service: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard

While those portions of the cemetery upgrade are now in place, much of the heavy lifting – quite literally – remains undone.

With headstones inscribed with dates as early as 1757 and some unmarked stones much older than that, it’s understandable that markers on some of the 900-plus gravesites had sunk into the ground, often to a foot or two beneath the surface.

Bob Daly and other volunteers have already used digging bars and their own strength to lift some 160 headstones. A grant from Delaware’s Distressed Cemetery Fund has helped pay a contractor who uses hoists and cranes to bring heavier stones back to ground level.

“We were down to about 35 [below ground level] but it seems like I find 10 more every time out,” Daly says. He now estimates that there are about 60 more stones that need to be raised, cleaned and returned to their original positions.

Once the stones are removed from below ground, the resulting holes must be filled with dirt, then covered with concrete before the stones can be replaced.

In raising the stones, the Dalys have discovered inscriptions that had gone unseen for years. Some feature prayers, or poetry; others reveal details of the deceased’s life.

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Larry Nagengast
/
Delaware Public Media
The lower, lighter portion of the repositioned 1868 headstone had been underground for many years.

Hanby, the Brandywine Hundred historian, recalls visiting the cemetery the day the headstones of his ancestors in the Husbands family were lifted back above ground. “I saw things on those headstones I never knew existed,” he says.

As the cemetery project has continued, the Dalys have found fresh evidence of military service among those buried here. “When we took this over, we had 38 veterans. Now we have 75 identified,” Bob Daly says. Each of their graves is marked with a U.S. flag and a medallion representing the war in which the serviceman fought.

Paying for the project

Last year estimates for restoring the interior of the church were placed at nearly $140,000, but that didn’t include the HVAC system, work on the pews or any of the items needed to create a museum. A large grant from the Crystal Trust, smaller ones from Preservation Delaware and the Welfare Foundation, and contributions from individual donors have covered most of those costs.

The grants from New Castle County Council and the Distressed Cemetery Fund have paid for most of the work in the cemetery.

Newark Union Corporation recently applied for a grant from the state’s Community Reinvestment Fund, which is overseen by the General Assembly’s Capital Improvement (“Bond Bill”) Committee, which Heffernan chairs. Heffernan says she hasn’t looked at the application yet, but she hopes it’s received favorably by the committee. Any award, however, will depend on state revenue estimates made in June before spending for the state’s next fiscal year is finalized.

Cartier, who has been impressed by work at the church and cemetery, sees potential for more county support. “I like to see people who show results apply for grants,” he says.

Opportunities for individual donors are also planned. A “Preserve a Pew” campaign will begin in June, with donors of $500 having a plaque bearing their name mounted on a restored pew. Commemorative bricks in the cemetery’s memory garden will also be offered, most likely for $100 each, Anne Daly says. Details on these campaigns, and on all restoration activities and events, can be found on Newark Union’s Facebook page.

A community treasure

As he has watched the restoration advance, Hanby says he has been impressed by “the amazing dedication and attention to detail” shown by the Dalys and other volunteers. “It’s inspiring to see someone who doesn’t have a direct connection to the site step up and say, ‘we can make it useful.”

“This is going to be a treasure for Brandywine Hundred,” Heffernan says. “The museum will help kids and adults learn more about the area’s history and the cemetery will build awareness of our veterans and Brandywine Hundred’s most prominent families.”

“It’s admirable that they’re restoring the site to its former glory,” Cartier says.

“This is going to be a treasure for Brandywine Hundred."
State Rep. Debra Heffernan (D-Brandywin Hundred)

A year ago, Bob Daly said, “We don’t want to be doing this for 10 years. We’re not getting any younger.”

Since then, this volunteer-led restoration has moved forward, not just on schedule but slightly ahead.

“The last year,” Daly says now, “has all been a blur to me.”
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Memorial Day Taps event

Newark Union Church and Cemetery will participate in the national Taps Across America Moment of Remembrance. At 3 p.m. on Memorial Day, May 30, visitors will gather in front of the cemetery’s American flag and military memorial for a one-minute moment of silence. Taps will be played. Then visitors will be encouraged to walk through the cemetery and visit the graves of the 75 veterans buried there.

Lend a hand

Newark Union Cemetery welcomes volunteers to help lift sunken grave markers and clean them before they are repositioned. Cleaning solutions and supplies are provided, and no special skills are required. For information, visit Newark Union’s Facebook page.

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Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than four decades.