Accidently digging up a grave is always disturbing.
So it was in downtown Port Rowan on Oct. 20 when a crew installing water mains at the corner of Bay Street and Church Street inadvertently excavated bones that proved to be human.
“A construction crew digging at a local church unearthed the remains,” Const. Ed Sanchuk of the Norfolk OPP said in a news release the next day.
“The Norfolk OPP crime unit continued to investigate and determined that the remains located in a casket are historical in nature and appeared to be a burial site.
“No foul play is suspected and this incident is not being treated as suspicious.”
The remains were found on property belonging to the Port Rowan Community Church. A date stone embedded in the front of the brick building says it was known as the Baptist Chapel at the time of its construction in 1856.
At the scene on Wednesday, Pastor Bill Wiebe says the discovery would not have been a surprise had the remains been located on the south side of the church.
Wiebe said the old Baptist cemetery was south of the building but was relocated over time as the congregation sold off lots for properties that, today, front onto Bay Street between the church and Wolven Street.
As it happened, the grave discovered this week was excavated to the north of the church across the street from the Port Rowan post office. That, Wiebe said, adds an element of mystery.
“The records of the church were destroyed in a fire in 1906,” said Wiebe, who, with wife Lorraine, has served as the pastoral family at the Community Church for 16 years.
“All we have is a written oral history. That’s what we rely on pre-1906. History tells us that people too poor for a funeral would’ve been buried on site. This would’ve all been farmland 150 years ago.”
Wiebe added that the oral histories gathered after the 1906 fire do not mention burial grounds to the north of the church. The fact the body was interred in an east-west direction tells Wiebe it was a Christian burial.
The excavation occurred at a time of turmoil in downtown Port Rowan.
The London firm J-AAR Excavating is replacing iron water mains at several locations in the core that prematurely failed due to improper installation 30 years ago. The grave’s discovery is part of this work.
Overseeing installation is Vallee Consulting Engineers, Architects and Planners of Simcoe. A foreman in downtown Port Rowan declined to comment.
It is too early to say what will become of the remains. Norfolk OPP are in contact with the office of the Chief Coroner of Ontario, forensic anthropologists, and Norfolk officials along with Wiebe.
From a spiritual standpoint, Wiebe says there are no consequences he can think of regarding the innocent disturbing of a grave, as opposed, he added, to the conscious act of “grave robbing.”
“The scriptures tell us that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord,” he said.
Excavators in urban areas of Norfolk have uncovered 19th-century gravesites before.
In the late 1980s, an excavating crew removing an in-ground fuel tank at a former service station on James Street in Delhi uncovered a portion of a forgotten cemetery from the days when Delhi was known as Fredericksburg. The graves were located on the east side of James Street immediately south of Church Street East.