Submitted by: Barbara Pelissier, Westhampton Historical Society
What do 19th century churches and lunatic asylum’s have in common? Both had dedication ceremonies that included the placement of a cornerstone either at or near the entrance or within the facade of the structure. Often accompanied by music and a simple Masonic ritual involving corn, wine and oil, sometimes not, the placement of a sealed rectangular box (usually copper) within the hollowed out cornerstone of the new edifice was common. What was in the box? Current issues of the local newspapers, copies of town reports, state reports, church reports, city directories, lists of members, contributors, directors or local politicians. Frequently, a few coins of various denominations or medallions were included. Sometimes there were historic and moving letters addressed, literally, to posterity. They had every confidence we would recover their words and artifacts. I’m not that confident.
The closing of state hospitals and the recent consolidation of many Catholic churches in the Pioneer Valley has left the fate of these cornerstone boxes in jeopardy. Dedication dates are easily found in printed church histories, state asylum reports, or municipal reports. A simple search of local newspaper databases or microfilm on the day of or the day following a dedication ceremony will provide current town/city planners with valuable information about any endangered historic documents or relics that may be lost to demolition or private sale.
I would like to see demolition delay ordinances amended to allow for implementation routinely on all 19th century public or religious structures slated for demolition until a determination is made as to whether any boxes lie within. If so, contractors can be instructed to carefully dismantle the specific sections of buildings that typically contain cornerstone boxes and be on the lookout for them. Some know exactly where to find them. Boxes should be recovered from structures slated for sale by a municipality or church. What can you do? Make a copy of any cornerstone information you discover in your collections or research and send it to the planning department as well as the historical commission of that town/city.
For a description of a Masonic cornerstone laying ceremony, visitPhoenixmasonry.org.
A general history of cornerstones can be found at:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornerstone