At Least 100 Unmarked Graves Discovered Around Virginia’s Oldest Church

About 100 unmarked graves have been discovered around the perimeter of a 17th century Smithfield church thanks to ground-penetrating radar.

Historic St. Luke’s is the oldest surviving church building in the state. Its Memorial Park Cemetery has more than 600 burial markers, with the earliest grave dated 1767, and the building is much older.

But “there are a bunch of people” unaccounted for in the graveyard, said archaeologist Clay Swindell, an Elizabeth City State University researcher who completed a report in March. Further investigation is required to verify the findings, he said, but no digging is planned, according to Rachel Popp, St. Luke’s education coordinator.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” Popp said of the report, which was based on a radar project conducted last year. The likelihood of so many unmarked graves reveals the historical significance of the church to the community.

“People cared about it enough to be buried early on here,” Popp said.

Built sometime in the 1600s, St. Luke’s is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The brick building, with a three-story tower and stained-glass windows, sits on about 100 acres near downtown Smithfield in Isle of Wight County. It was originally an Anglican church but hosted an Episcopal congregation after the American Revolution, Popp said.

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