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Project halted after skeletons found

15 May 2015

Unforeseen find: workmen begin construction of the extension on St Peter and St Paul, Alconbury, earlier this year, before the discovery of human remains stopped the work

Unforeseen find: workmen begin construction of the extension on St Peter and St Paul, Alconbury, earlier this year, before the discovery of human re...

A BUILDING project in a village church, which was ten years in the making, has been thrown into doubt after 120 bodies were discovered buried in the site.

St Peter and St Paul, in Alconbury, north of Huntingdon, had spent a decade raising £230,000 to build an extension on the north side of the 13th-century church. It would be used as a community meeting space, with a kitchen and disabled lavatory.

Just a few weeks after the diggers moved in in March, however, human remains began to be discovered in the ground where the new building was to be constructed. The Rector, the Revd Mary Jepp, said on Monday that the church had been forced to halt work and bring in archaeologists to examine the skeletons.

"We have got 120 skeletons that need to be re-interred," she said. "It closed the building site, and it means that funding for the exhuming and re-interring of those bodies is falling on the church."

Mrs Jepp estimated that the cost of exhumation and re-interment of the bodies would be between £20,000 and £30,000, which would mean that they could no longer afford to complete the project.

"We feel as if we are scuppered, regardless of which direction we turn. There are several elderly women who have worked their socks off for the past ten years. In a meeting last week, they were almost in tears. We all feel sick about it."

Mrs Jepp said that her small church, which has a congregation of about 50 on a good Sunday, had been tireless in fund-raising, holding Christmas-tree festivals, selling marmalade, and "everything else you can imagine".

Despite the setback, she said that she was determined to continue. Parishioners had already put flyers asking for donations through every door in the village, and a prayer campaign had begun.

They had promised the village a community space that they could share, Mrs Jepp said; so the church could not give up now. "We have seen real progress in terms of mission - we have youth work, we work in schools, we have a toddler group. Things are starting to kick on; so this is a real body-blow."

Although she accepted that ancient remains needed to be exhumed and re-interred with respect, she thought that there should be some way that small churches were not financially penalised for unexpected burial grounds. The frustration with this problem was worsened, she said, because the church's original plans, to build the community space inside the church, were rejected by the diocese.

A spokeswoman from the diocese of Ely said that, although the diocese sympathised with the church, the rules on exhuming human remains were set by the Government, not the Church of England.

The diocesan secretary, Paul Evans, said, however, that the diocese would offer St Peter and St Paul a loan of £30,000, because of the "exceptional nature" of its find. "Ely diocese values all its church buildings as centres of worship. . . And, working closely with its parishes, within the law of the land, seeks to enable them to use their buildings to best serve their communities," he said.

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