Established as a cemetery for the Episcopal parish organized in Downtown Providence in 1829, this is now the only parish-specific cemetery in the city. Designed only a few years after Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery, the pre-eminent exemplar of the American garden cemetery, Grace Church shows no evidence of its influence; indeed, the very decision to acquire a small, flat tract of land is much more within the burial-ground tradition, despite the use of the more euphonious designation of “cemetery.” Funerary sculpture, too, is relatively unremarkable. But the welcome breath of open space in a dense residential neighborhood is appealing, especially as faced with the charming Gothic Revival gate lodge, built around 1860 and handsomely restored as its headquarters in the 1980s by the Elmwood Foundation, the neighborhood organization central in much of the neighborhood’s resurgence in the late twentieth century (South Providence and Elmwood).
– 2003 Guide to Providence Architecture
Located at the junction of Broad Street and Elmwood Avenue, Grace Church Cemetery has served as a gateway to South Providence for well over 150 years. Grace Episcopal Church originally purchased four acres of level land for use as a parish burial ground in 1834; the triangular parcel was doubled in size by 1843. The original portion of the cemetery was laid out on a diagonal with “avenues” between rows of plots named for trees. The larger addition was laid out in a simple east-west grid.
A granite receiving vault, built into a raised mound in the southern section, was built in the Greek Revival style around 1850. The handsome caretaker’s cottage, just inside the gate at the northern tip, was constructed between 1859-1860 in the Gothic Revival style promoted by A.J. Downing in The Architecture of Country Houses. It has also been referred to historically as the gate lodge or superintendent’s cottage. The Cemetery is part of the Trinity Square Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places and remains a key element of the Trinity Square streetscape.
Long a focus of community activity, the caretaker’s cottage was meticulously restored by the Elmwood Foundation (then Community Works RI, now ONE Neighborhood Builders) in 1982. It was restored again in 2008 in collaboration with the Providence Revolving Fund, and underwent extensive structural repairs after a car collided with the building’s foundation in 2010. The cottage is part of the Providence Landmark District.
The cemetery itself has experienced desecration of gravestones by vandals. Since the cemetery’s last MEP listing, the Trinity Gateway Historical Improvement Association was formed, in 2017, to act as a “friends” group for Grace Church Cemetery. Working with Groundwork Rhode Island and Trinity Together, they host biannual volunteer clean-up events. TGHIA is planning conservation training events to repair and restore many of the toppled and broken gravestones and devising a plan to reactivate the caretaker’s cottage. A website created by students at Roger Williams University will launch later this year and be full of information about the cemetery.
PPS continues to advocate for the restoration of grave markers in this historic cemetery.