Big plans are in the works for this sacred space in Kennedyville, Maryland
By Debra R. Messick
Photos by Bob Falconio
At Shrewsbury Parish Episcopal Church in Kent County, you can almost hear the echoes of history. Listen closely and discover Captain John Smith encountering Tockwogh tribal members during his second voyage up the Sassafras River in 1608.
Visit and find Revolutionary War general John Cadwalader, whose 1786 burial site featured an epitaph by Thomas Paine.
The brick chapel on the outskirts of Kennedyville, presiding gracefully for centuries, today watches over a growing community garden, a cemetery remapped with cutting edge GIS technology, with plans in progress to refurbish the “brown house” — a 1920s Sears & Roebuck catalog home languishing behind overgrown foliage — into a visitor center and museum.
“These might be among the most significant developments in Shrewsbury’s history,” said Rev. Henry M. Sabetti. He credits dedicated leadership from parish members Cherilyn Widell, Rob Busler, and Bob O’Connell, along with support from the Easton Episcopal Diocese and community partners.
Widell, a nationally-renowned historic preservation professional and Director of the National Fund for Sacred Spaces, was instrumental in bringing parish members to a pivotal workshop designed to help struggling congregations innovate underutilized space. At Shrewsbury Parish, this meant outdoor areas, including the cemetery and church grounds.
With practical tips on finding funding and refocusing energy on the surrounding community’s needs, the workshop became a project launching “catapult,” Rev. Sabetti said.
Cemetery and Proposed Visitor Center
Retired commercial architect and congregation newcomer Rob Busler took on the roles of Church historian and cemetery warden, enthusiastically delving into efforts to preserve and highlight the site’s many layers of history — from Native Americans to the landed gentry, indentured servants, slaves, Latino immigrants, and veterans representing every American war, and finding fresh ways to share the stories.
Besides a working knowledge of computerized cemetery software, Busler brought a decidedly fresh eye to the goals of updating and digitizing records into a centralized, accessible web-based portal.
A Preservation Maryland funding grant enabled Busler to engage Washington College’s Geographic Information Systems program (GIS), providing geospatial analysis to digitally map each burial spot’s exact location, a clear upgrade from the old hand-drawn diagram. The improvement will enable interactive online burial plot searches by designated strata, such as an individual’s age and the decade of passing, providing a clearer historical overview.
After discovering what appeared to be an 18th-century foundation wall in the far southwestern portion of the old cemetery in January 2021, Busler invited the Washington College Center for Environment and Society’s Archeological Studio to inspect the site and submit a proposal for exploratory excavations.
When Widell initially wrote up a community garden grant request from the Easton Diocese, she didn’t foresee the COVID-19 pandemic. But when the “seed money” came through last year, the timing was doubly helpful. Retired farmer and parishioner Bob O’Connell said that the initial plan was to go big, converting two acres of church farmland into garden plots. But after determining that an upfront investment of $50,000 would be needed, a smaller parcel consisting of 10 garden plots behind the Parish Hall got the effort underway.
Four parishioners and six families connected with a local nonprofit youth leadership group, the Bayside HOYAS, and they all worked the plots, producing food for themselves and donating over 300 pounds of fresh produce to local food banks.
Last October, O’Connell and volunteers supplemented the garden space, planting perennial berry bushes and fruit and nut trees. This year, up to 25 plots are available at no cost to participants. Bilingual flyers and ads have gone up to invite community members to take part.
Three beehives housed at the far back section of the cemetery this year have generated additional buzz. Rev. Sabetti, currently enrolled in an Extension Service beekeeping course, will be guided by longtime area expert Sam Beachey who is volunteering his beekeeping and honey-producing skills. Anyone interested in taking part will have protective gear provided at no charge.
From Brown House to History Gateway
The former Sears & Roebuck Catalog home, with echoes of 1920s American history, is under study as a visitor center and museum, a focal point for discovering heretofore untold “Stories of the Chesapeake Heritage Area,” including a more comprehensive representation of those interred in the cemetery, congregation builders, members, and neighbors, and the site’s four designated landmark Maryland champion trees.
12824 Shrewsbury Church Rd. Kennedyville, Md. 410-348-5944