PAWTUCKET â€” Sometime overnight on Saturday, vandals pushed headstones off the bases of some 18 monuments at the Walnut Hill Cemetery, Pawtucket Police said.
The vandalism was discovered on Sunday morning and reported by Edward Ayoud, a caretaker for the section of the cemetery that is leased by the St. Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church in Pawtucket. Ayoud said he learned of the damage from a parishioner who had been visiting a relative's grave that morning and then mentioned it to him at a church service.
â€śWhen I came over here and saw it, I couldn't believe my eyes. I'm pretty upset about this. Who would do this?â€ť said Ayoud. He said that the majority of the damaged headstones were in the St. Mary's Church section, but he also saw some toppled stones in other parts of the cemetery, including near the front entrance and in the section used by the Assumption Greek Orthodox Church.
The privately-owned Walnut Hill Cemetery has been in the news lately because a group of citizens had raised questions to city officials about some tree clearing and excavation work that owner Joseph Franco has been doing at the historical site. Several who are members of an ad hoc cemetery committee had alleged that Franco was doing work without following city and state guidelines for historical cemeteries, and a cease and desist order was issued by the city. However, the City Council recently ruled that the work could resume.
Ayoud said it appeared as though vandals had entered the cemetery from the rear and had pushed or kicked over the stones as they passed by, finally exiting near the Armistice Boulevard entrance. He said that church leaders are in the process of working with the police to offer a reward for information leading to the arrest of those involved.
Ayoud said that based on incidents of vandalism that have occurred at this and other area cemeteries in the past, it is likely that the suspects are youths.
However, he also said he wondered if the damage could have something to do with the negative attention that the cemetery and its owner have received lately.
Ayoud said that in his experience as caretaker for the St. Mary's Church section, Franco has typically been responsive to requests for service. He also said that he and other members of the church council are pleased to see the extensive clearing of trees, brush and litter that Franco has done at the rear of the property along Arthur Avenue.
Ayoud added that it is usually up to the family of the deceased to pay to have a headstone re-mounted or repaired, but Franco told him he will do all of the the re-mounting of the damaged headstones at no charge.
Franco told The Times on Monday that while he usually finds four or five headstones vandalized throughout the course of a year, this has been the largest number to be damaged at one time. He put the estimate of toppled stones higher than the police report, saying he counted over 30 or more in need of repair.
Franco said that he, too, wondered if the vandalism had anything to do with the cemetery recently being highlighted in the news media. He said that he joins the St. Mary's parishioners in wanting to see the culprits caught. â€śThey are upset, as they should be. Who would do something like that?â€ť Franco stated.
Franco said he intends to bring in equipment on Wednesday to put the headstones upright and re-seal their bases. He added that this labor typically costs around $200 to $300, but he is not going to charge the families.