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Enlighten Me: Incredible progress being made in restoring Newark Union Church and Cemetery

A plaque marking the site of the Newark Union Church and Cemetery
Delaware Public Media
A plaque marking the site of the Newark Union Church and Cemetery

Over the past year and a half, Delaware Public Media has followed the efforts to preserve and restore the Newark Union Church and Cemetery – a little-known piece of history nestled in Brandywine Hundred.

Contributor Larry Nagengast joins the show this week with highlights on the remarkable progress being made there.

Contributor Larry Nagengast reports on the progress being made in restoring Newark Union Church and Cemetery

Some 15 months ago, Bob Daly mused that the restoration he and his wife Anne are spearheading at the historic Newark Union Church in Brandywine Hundred would be completed in 2023, “if all goes well.”

Now, thanks to volunteer labor, greater than expected community support and, most recently, a $250,000 state grant, the Dalys are confident that a pre-Christmas service will be held in the church in December and that the museum they’re creating will be ready to open early next year.

It’s definitely going well.

“There’s just so much that has been done,” he said. “If someone had told me it would look like this in just a year and a half, I would have taken that bet.”

The Dalys are president and treasurer of the nonprofit Newark Union Corporation, caretakers of the church built 177 years ago and the adjacent cemetery, which dates to 1687. The DuPont Company retirees landed in their current role unexpectedly, not long after they moved into the old house across the street from the church in early 2018. Soon they met Jean Weldin and her husband Ray, a member of a prominent Brandywine Hundred family whose members had been responsible for management of the church and cemetery since 1845. The Weldins felt they were no longer capable of handling those duties and asked the Dalys to take over.

The installation of air conditioning units this month was the last major piece in preparing the old church for what could be generations of future use as a museum, event venue and community gathering place. The work has included installation of a new roof, restoration of seven massive lancet windows and two smaller ones, repairing and repainting the stucco exterior, refinishing the hardwood floors and restoring 21 pews.

Restored pews
Larry Nagengast / Delaware Public Media
Restored pews

Grants from two of Delaware’s largest philanthropic organizations, the Longwood Foundation and the Crystal Trust, paid for most of the interior work on the church while individual donations covered the cost of the pew and window projects. Overall, about $260,000 has been spent on interior and exterior work at the church.

The $250,000 state grant – from the Community Reinvestment Fund that is part of the annual Bond Bill approved the by the General Assembly – will be used for additional interior improvements, some related exterior work and cemetery needs, Anne Daly said.

“We asked for a little more than $250,000. We’re pleased with what we received, but once we got notice of the grant, we reprioritized our wish list,” she said.

The top priority will be construction of a carriage house in front of the church, a nod to the Quakers who had built a log meetinghouse on the site in the early 1700s. Amish craftsmen will build the carriage house, using wood from a 19th-century barn torn down in Pennsylvania earlier this year, Bob Daly said.

A second major expense financed by the grant will be a Quaker-style storage shed and an outdoor restroom featuring an electric-powered compost toilet. They will be built on the east side of the church. A flagstone walkway will provide a sturdy pathway between the shed and the church.

The shed will allow for a rotation of items used inside the church, Daly said. The pews will be moved into the shed to make room for museum displays and back into the church for events like weddings.

The grant will also cover installation of a security system, construction of a ramp for handicap access, exterior signage and display cases and posters for the planned museum.

The cemetery, where the Dalys, volunteers and a contractor have already raised more than 160 headstones and footstones that had sunk below ground level over the past 200 years, will also benefit from the funding made available by the state.

A flagstone walkway, like the one between the shed and the church, will extend from the church through the center of the cemetery, ending at the flower-filled memory garden created last year. The walkway will pass directly in front of the cemetery’s largest monument – honoring Valentine Hollingsworth, who established the cemetery as a Quaker burial ground on a portion of the 986 acres granted to him by William Penn in 1682.

About $50,000 will be spent to complete repairs to the stone wall that surrounds the cemetery, and a few thousand more will go towards grading, landscaping and installing a few more benches, Bob Daly said.

New Castle County Councilman John Cartier, who has worked to secure several county grants for the cemetery, credits state Rep. Debra Heffernan, whose district includes the Newark Union site, with ensuring that the church and cemetery received the state grant. Heffernan is chair of the General Assembly’s Joint Capital Improvement Committee, which decides which organizations will receive grants from the Community Reinvestment Fund. The Dalys sought Heffernan’s advice before applying for the grant.

Cartier said it is “astonishing” that so much has been accomplished at the church in less than two years. “If you get a very dedicated group of volunteers who are smart and who will reach out to seek funds, that’s the difference between something happening and nothing happening,” he said.

A Newark Union Church and Cemetery headstone
Larry Nagengast
Delaware Public Media
Valentine Hollingsworth memorial monument

The Dalys, he said, “have built their lives around caretaking and the restoration of the site.”

Heffernan said the work done at Newark Union has been “amazing,” and noted that she regularly visits the organization’s Facebook page to view photos and descriptions of progress on the project.

When the project is complete, Newark Union “will be a true asset for our community, and for the history of Brandywine Hundred,” she said.

Heffernan is speaking primarily of the transformation of the church – multidenominational when it opened but Methodist for most of its history – into a multipurpose facility, especially the museum the Dalys have begun to create.

The museum, they said, will have three themes: depicting life in 19th-century Brandywine Hundred, telling the history of the prominent families associated with the church and cemetery, and providing a glimpse into the wars – from the American Revolution to Vietnam – in which veterans buried in the cemetery had fought.

They have begun assembling a collection of 19th-century artifacts, including a spinning wheel, a sewing machine, a broadax, a children’s sled and chairs, a Civil War medic’s kit as well as Brandywine Hundred tax records and property deeds.

“I can’t wait to see when school groups are able to visit,” Heffernan said.

In Brandywine Hundred, perhaps more than in other areas of the state, “people care about their heritage and want to be part of protecting it,” Cartier said. “And, if you use a historic site to host events, you’ve got a big win there.”

Those plans are starting to come together.

On September 26, members of the newly formed Brandywine Hundred Historical Society toured the church.

On December 23, Bob Daly said, the congregation of the nearby Shellburne Bible Church, which was known as the New Ark Union Church when it met in the building from 1957 to 1970, plans to return for its annual pre-Christmas Eve service. “They held the last service in the old church, so it’s fitting that they hold the first service” after the restoration, he said.

Another holiday-themed service will likely be held between Christmas and New Year’s Day, he added.

The restored church is likely to begin hosting weddings next year. Cindy Nelson, secretary of the Newark Union Corporation, said that one of her neighbors has already inquired about having a wedding ceremony there.

While bookings for community meetings and social events aren’t being scheduled yet, Anne Daly said a gathering of historic significance is planned for next June – the annual meeting of the Descendants of Valentine Hollingsworth Historical Society. The meeting, held in various locations across the nation where Hollingsworths reside, usually draws 35 to 40 people, but is likely to be larger this time because it will be held where the Hollingsworths established their roots, she said.

Attendees at the reunion will have an opportunity to examine the craftsmanship of their kin. Labor for the painting and roofing of the church was provided at below-market rates by Bruce Hollingsworth and Emery Baumann, respectively, 11th- and 12th-generation descendants of Valentine Hollingsworth, she said.

Valentine Hollingsworth’s house, built in 1683, is across the street from the church and is now the Dalys’ home. Three of its original exterior walls are still standing.

As part of the reunion events, Bob Daly said, the headstone at Valentine Hollingsworth’s grave, located just a few feet from the large family monument, will be raised from its current underground resting place. Later, he said, the stone will be reset and surrounded by decorative iron fencing.

As they continue their work, the Dalys are constantly surprised by the support and interest shown for the project. The Newark Union Facebook page, created in 2020, has grown from about 300 followers last summer to 550 this month.

New directional sign on Baynard Blvd
Larry Nagengast / Delaware Public Media
New directional sign on Baynard Blvd

Posting frequent photo-filled progress reports to the page has drawn more volunteers and visitors to the church and cemetery, Bob Daly said.

In August, a couple from Illinois who had an interest in old cemeteries, stopped by after dropping off their daughter for orientation at the University of Delaware.

Earlier this year, a group of young Amtrak employees undergoing training in the Washington, D.C., area heard about the cemetery, saw “Union” in its name and drove up because they were interested in Civil War history. Although Newark Union has no association with the Civil War other than the several soldiers buried there, the visitors stayed for several hours, talking and learning more about the site, Daly said.

Not only are people hungry for history, but they’re also eager to help, he said.

They’ve received unsolicited donations of an 18th-century stone water trough and a hand-operated water pump, and both will be displayed next to the carriage house.

“Somebody pulls in, you start talking to them, and everybody’s got a story,” he said. “And, if you need something done, just wait a minute. Somebody’s going to pull up in their car and, if they can’t do it, they know somebody else who will.”

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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 five decades.