Church volunteers help restore graves

Published 9:58 pm Monday, April 3, 2017

Church volunteers are working on improving an overlooked grave site in Suffolk.

The site has approximately 10 grave markers of African-American deceased buried in the early 1960s, including military veterans and children. Portsmouth Adventure Church members cleared debris on March 25 at the narrow sliver of woods in the western edge of Harbour Breeze Lifestyle Apartments.

“We had 240 bags out here and two piles of brush just from cleaning it out,” Adventure Church pastor Fred Lane said.

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Volunteers returned last Saturday to put down fresh dirt for grass seed donated by John King, president of the African American Chapter of Disabled American Veterans. Lane said King is interested in doing maintenance on the site and helping to recognize the buried veterans.

“It’s something that should have been done a long time ago,” church volunteer Fred Bilskis said.

The graves were spotted by a local resident in 2013. Harbour Breeze Estates II Home Owners Association president Dr. Joseph Schipper has investigated the graves and determined they were originally in Belleville Cemetery, which was relocated in the 1980s.

He said there is no confirmation yet if the remains were relocated, but he suspects they were not. The depression of dirt on the graves suggests the bodies remain, as the caskets deteriorated and the ground sank. There are also stone markers still at the site.

“It would be unusual to consider that they would move the body and not the stone,” he said.

A “costly” survey is needed to determine the landownership of the graves, according to Schipper.

His personal desire is to relocate the graves to Belleville Cemetery, as doing so would allow family members of the deceased to visit the graves more easily.

Until then, volunteers are planning to put up fencing to help people recognize the grave site.

“My hope is that the community will take an interest in it,” Lane said.

Harbor Breeze Apartments resident Bethany Tinto said she is glad the graves are being looked after. She lives in the apartments with her boyfriend, and neither knew about the graves until they spotted it while walking one of their dogs.

“We had no idea it was back here until we saw it in the moonlight,” she said.

Adventure Church volunteer William Atkins has family in military service, including his son. He said it is an honor for him to help these fallen soldiers and the others buried.

“It’s a place of honor and final rest,” he said.

He said they are committed to doing what they can to improve the site.

“That’s the way we are at the church,” he said. “We’re committed to doing these things if they’re in our means, and even if it’s not in our means, we’ll find a way.”