Civic leaders envisioned the open rink as the centerpiece of a two-year, $5 million overhaul of the park that began in May. But members of the First Congregational Church asked the state Historical Commission to revoke its approval of the project after workers recently uncovered headstones.
Worcester's Common, which dates to 1669, is on the National Register of Historic Places. According to the city parks department, it was the scene of the first reading of the Declaration of Independence in New England, and militia members drilled on the Common during the Revolutionary War.
It also was the location of the Old South Meeting House, a combination church and civic center, and the town burial ground, but eventually the graveyard was covered over and in the 1880s the city seized the church's site by eminent domain.
The city pledged to maintain the parcel with "respect and dignity," and church officials argue that a skating rink would violate that agreement.
"We were taken aback," said the Rev. James R. Cote, moderator of the 140-member church. "My wife's family and other families in the congregation are descendants of people buried there."
The Common was originally about 20 acres, but only about 4 acres remain, largely the area of the graveyard and church.
At least 150 bodies were removed from the area in the 1960s during the construction of a reflecting pool.
In 1995, another body was unearthed during the construction of a bus stop, prompting the city to commission an archaeological survey of the Common.
According to the state historical commission, at least 232 bodies are still buried there, but city officials have insisted that no graves would be disturbed during the current renovation, which will include new plantings, paths, the installation of 19th-century style lighting, and removal of the reflecting pool.
"Our reading of that study, which is 1.5 inches thick, is they will dig up somebody wherever they dig on the Common," Cote said.
Mayor Timothy P. Murray said many residents support the rink project as part of the plan to revitalize the Common.
"It's not a very functional Common. There's just no green space, it's not inviting," Murray said.
Murray said any bodies found at the site could be moved to another cemetery, "showing as much respect as possible."
City Solicitor David Moore told the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester that the church relinquished control over its piece of the Common when it signed the eminent domain agreement in 1883 in exchange for $115,000.
The church's fight to save the burial ground took on new life two weeks ago, when workers uncovered three toppled gravestones.
"It proves our point," Cote said. "They don't know where the bodies are."
City officials notified the state historical commission and work on the rink has been halted to give archaeologists another opportunity to survey the area. Graves are protected under state law, said commission spokesman Brian McNiff.
Cote said many older members of the congregation were upset when church leaders did not object more during earlier renovations.
"We have been very polite," he said. "But we are now adamant. The city has trampled enough."
By Trudy Tynan