A Secret Moravian Cemetery in Chelsea
Adventures with Bobbie Borne and Molly WoodPrologue
To entertain ourselves on the eve of our London vacation, Molly and I spent an hour Ebay surfing. She demonstrated her favorite search: "nutbirds" (funky little birds made out of a nut and bakelite plastic). I also entered my usual search, "Moravians." As we viewed the resulting items-a history of Bethlehem, PA; a Moravian Christmas star; 3 lbs of Moravian ginger cookies; an Old Salem brochure-something surfaced that I'd not seen in my four years as an Ebayer: an old postcard of a Moravian chapel in London. I was familiar with Moravian items from various parts of the U.S. and from Germany, but not from the U.K. How ironic that on this evening of our departure, we would unearth something from London. Molly emailed the British seller to ask if she knew if that church still existed. We got an immediate response that the church was no doubt gone-too bad!
"Moravians from America Come to Visit"
Not being a person who believes in fate or predestination, I assumed it was my sister and I who selected that particular Starbucks on Kings Road, Chelsea, as our haven on that particular London morning.
We had only just arrived in the city hours before and were not yet able to check into our hotel off Earl's Court Road. Turned out onto the street, we dodged the crazy London traffic of minis, taxis, red double-decker buses, and everything else on wheels. I encouraged Molly with the promise of Cheyne Walk, a lovely row of old houses on a beautiful quiet street by the Thames-removed from the sound of horns and screeching tires. I had been there in 1966 and still felt its pull.
"We're almost there" I said to Molly as she pulled to a halt, the beginning signs of jet lag already apparent. "Let's find a coffee spot and sit down for a bit," she replied, "My brain is fuzzy." The Starbucks sign was a beacon, calling out from among pubs, restaurants, and shops. So what if it's American, we agreed, and proceeded to enter.
Shillings and pence successfully negotiated and drinks in hand, we sat by the window and regrouped. As Molly sipped her coffee, I studied my map. Focusing on Chelsea, I noticed a green patched labeled Moravian Church Cemetery. Surprised by this unexpected landmark, I plotted its location and figured it must be somewhere nearby, off the King's Road, to be exact. I leapt up and poked my head out of the front door; sure enough, this Starbucks was on the corner of King's Road and Beaufort Street. Reconfirming the location on the map, I was further amazed to find that we were actually sitting directly across the street from the green patch on my map.
What a marvelous coincidence! We downed our coffee and charged through the traffic across King's Road. Spinning around on this busy corner, we wondered how a cemetery could fit in here amongst the phalanxes of attached buildings. Scanning the rows of commercial establishments, our eyes lit on a high wall with a blue door and a small adjacent sign: Moravian Church Cemetery. Feeling like Mary in The Secret Garden, I turned the brass knob and pushed the door open. Stepping over the threshold onto a cobblestone walk, we caught our breath at the idyllic scene before us. An acre of land, mostly grass, surrounded by a stone wall on 3 sides, and a row of very old buildings on the 4th, along which this path, Fetter Lane, followed.
Before we could fully absorb this sight, a middle aged man and small dog appeared on the path. We asked his permission to explore the churchyard and he offered to show us around and fill us in on the history of this little oasis, surrounded by bustling London. We learned that Henry VIII gave this property to Sir Thomas More who built his estate nearby, and stables here. In time, ownership changed hands, the More estate was demolished, and in 17 was purchased by Count Nicholas Von Zinzendorf. To be used as a center for Moravian congregant and missionary activities.
Mike (and his dachshund) took us into his studio, the former chapel, and pointed out the ceiling beams, made from wood said to have been salvaged from Thomas More's stables. The walls were covered with artwork done by his artist parents in the 30s. Mike, himself, is the gardener and general caretaker of the Close.
Stepping back out with us onto Fetter Lane, Mike elaborated on the current status of the Moravian Church here. Suddenly a flash of recognition zapped through my brain as I gazed on the building we'd just left. "Molly, take a step back and look up!" It was immediately clear that we were looking at the Moravian Chapel on the Ebay postcard of the previous evening. So many coincidences in a single day! We attempted to explain our astonishment to Mike. At this moment, our attention was diverted to a woman carrying grocery bags, stepping through the blue door in the wall, followed by a bounding dog. "Patsy, Moravians from American come to visit!" shouted Mike enthusiastically. "That's the Vicar's wife with her shopping and Joshua," he said to us.
After introductions, Patsy took over as tour guide and picked up where Mike had left off. As she spoke of the early Moravians who had established this center, my eyes fell on 2 plaques embedded in the exterior chapel wall: Christian Renatus Zinzendorf and Maria Justina, Countess Reuss (Benigna Von Z.'s daughter.) At this moment, I began to entertain the possibility that perhaps fate had played a hand in our seemingly fortuitous discovery of Moravian Close. Because now, 3 hours after landing at Heathrow, we were within inches of 2 of our own ancestors: the son and granddaughter of Zinzendorf! Patsy said they and others are buried under the stone floor of the chapel. She took us into the small chapel where we saw displays depicting Moravian history and accepted pamphlets and information on the history of Fetter Lane Moravian Church.
Once outside, we wandered around God's acre and inspected the typically flat gravestones, trying to decipher the worn inscriptions. They were laid out in the usual choirs: married men, married women, single men, single sisters, and children. Grass had encroached and partially covered most of the stones. In the back of the cemetery was a shrine-like area with 4 Greek columns arranged in a rectangle and a row of coats-of-arms. Patsy told us that this area was created by artists who lived here in the 20s. The coats-of-arms reflected the ownership lineage of the Close, beginning with Henry VIII and ending with Zinzendorf: a memorial honoring all those who had held custodial rights over the land.
We'd spent a long while here and felt we needed to push on. There was a whole city out there waiting to be explored. Still, it was hard to say goodbye, knowing we were leaving our ancestors behind. They, of course, had been well protected for centuries. So we thanked our hosts and stepped out through the blue door, knowing we would return one day.
Later that day, we checked each of the other 6 maps we'd brought to London, and found no indication of the Moravian Close on any of them.