2016-04-14 / Front Page

Historic Cemeteries Give Rare Glimpse into the Past

By James Merolla


Visit Island Cemetery, the Belmont Chapel and the Common Burying Ground on Saturday, April 16, as part of Historic Cemetery Awareness Day. Visit Island Cemetery, the Belmont Chapel and the Common Burying Ground on Saturday, April 16, as part of Historic Cemetery Awareness Day. Newport has often lavishly feted its live wires. Soon, it will honor its dead.

On Saturday, April 16, to commemorate Historic Cemetery Restoration and Awareness Day in Rhode Island, Newport History Tours – a collaboration of the Newport Historical Society and the Newport Restoration Foundation – will be conducting a tour of the Common Burying Ground at 1 p.m., departing from the Brick Market Museum & Shop at 127 Thames St.

Following that tour, Friends of the Island Cemetery will host a 2:30 p.m. excursion through the Island Cemetery, including a rare interior viewing of the Belmont Chapel.

Both excursions are free.

The hope is that the next time you exit the Pell Bridge via the Historic Newport exit and continue straight on Farewell Street – with the cemeteries on either side – you will recall what you saw and heard about the amazing legacies amid the markers: naval heroes, world-renowned architects, talented artists, brave women, captains of industry, and the man who introduced Newport to the 10-course dinner.

Among the monuments you will find memorials to Gilbert Stuart (best known as painter of the iconic unfinished 1796 portrait of George Washington); a memorial to the 18 people who perished in the 1846 sinking of the Brig Sutledge in Long Island Sound; the grave of Axel Sundquist, a winner of the Medal of Honor for his efforts to clear mines in a Cuban harbor called Guantanamo Bay during the Spanish-American War; and monuments to Oliver Hazard Perry, who at age 27 was the hero of the Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812, and August Belmont, one of the earliest summer residents of Newport to host lavish parties and court New York society. He is reported to be the person who introduced the 10-course dinner to Newport hostesses.

In simple contrast to these ornate memorials, Richard Morris Hunt, the architect of The Breakers, Marble House and Ochre Court, may be found under a simple granite slab with the inspirational quote, “To work is to pray.”

As the words “Restoration” and “Awareness” in the title of the day’s events suggest, the public is also invited to participate in the work being done. Many stones need cleaning; several sections are in disrepair. To that end, Friends of the Island Cemetery Co., a nonprofit corporation formed in January, aims to support their preservation activities there. The Friends hope to assist in making the natural beauty and historical significance of the Island Cemetery more accessible to the community for reflection, reverence, artistic, historical, and genealogical pursuits and appreciation.

“We formed the organization and invited the management of the Island Cemetery to assist us in identifying needs and prioritizing projects that would restore the cemetery to its former glory,” said Matt McEntee of his 10-person board.

They welcome volunteer time, financial support, and are looking for family histories and stories that chronicle the place. “This remarkable 22-acre cultural open space in the heart of Newport is the final resting place for many of Rhode Island’s founding families and other prominent historic figures,” said McEntee. “The Friends group is dedicated to giving the Island Cemetery the time and attention it deserves.”

Highlights of the Island Cemetery tour will be Perry Circle, where Commodore Matthew Perry is buried, and the Belmont Memorial Chapel. The 1888 Gothic Revival is a simple, yet beautiful, structure given by August Belmont as a memorial to his 19-year-old daughter, Jane Pauline, who suffered greatly during her short life. The admonition “Patience” is inscribed at many locations in the interior of the memorial chapel as a testament to her.

The incorporation of the nonprofit Belmont Chapel Foundation in 2013 marked the start of a drive to restore the chapel after years of neglect. Stop in to see the dramatic results of their efforts.

Return to top