Barbara M. Russell, the senior warden of Caroline Episcopal Church, points to the two sections of a restored headstone inside the church's cemetery in East Setauket. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

When Caroline Episcopal Church marks its tricentennial next year, the East Setauket congregation will have an additional reason to celebrate.

Dozens of grave markers in the church's cemetery — some dating to the early 1800s — are being spruced up after decades of damage caused by weather, age and the natural shifting of soil and stone, church officials said.

"We're doing our best to make the church and graveyard look as good as they can look," Barbara Russell, the church's chief warden, told Newsday. "We really do have a responsibility to take care of, not just the church, but the graveyard. ... Many of the earliest names in Brookhaven are here in our cemetery."

Most of the burial ground's headstones, foot stones and an obelisk are made from granite, brownstone and marble, which accumulate lichen and mold over time, Russell said. Some markers include stones stacked atop one another, causing them to tilt or collapse, she said.

A crew from Burying Ground Preservation Group in Sag Harbor is cleaning and repairing the stones. Russell said for some graves, workers used a tripod to lift stones and dig out bases buried underground.

Russell, who is Brookhaven Town's official historian, said the graveyard rehabilitation began two years ago in the oldest part of the cemetery, where the oldest markers are from the early 19th century. The restoration crew returned in September to repair graves from the early to mid-1800s, Russell said.

The first phase was funded by a $30,000 grant from the Setauket-based Rommel Wilson Memorial Fund; phase two is paid for with a $10,000 grant from the nonprofit Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation in Riverhead and a $10,000 matching grant from Rommel Wilson, Russell said.

Gardiner Foundation executive director Kathryn Curran said the organization has provided $40 million since 2015 for historic preservation efforts at colleges, houses of worship and nonprofits.

"The board looks for projects that are impactful that other historical societies can learn from and benefit from," Curran told Newsday. "Bob Gardiner's love was these small regional historical societies, so that's a definite part of what our mission is."

Curran and Russell said graveyards, besides being sacred ground, are valuable to genealogists and people researching family histories.

"Sometimes," Russell said, "it's the only record that genealogists have to use."

Among the graveyard's permanent residents are 19th-century Port Jefferson shipbuilder John Willse, several Revolutionary War veterans, Emma S. Clark, for whom the East Setauket public library is named, and once-prominent 18th- and 19th-century citizens whose names — such as Hawkins, Hallock and Jayne — are familiar from street signs throughout Brookhaven. 

The Rev. Nickolas Clay Griffith said the graveyard rehab helps honor past parishioners as the church prepares to celebrate its 300th anniversary.

"I think in part it's a celebration of the saints in light and the souls in light that have worked for the benefit of the community," Griffith said. "It's an effort of not only memorializing them … but also celebrating them and what they mean to us."

Caroline Episcopal Church in East Setauket counts about 200 members and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Here's a brief synopsis of the church's history.

1723: Founded as an Anglican mission of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel 

1729: Sanctuary constructed at 1 Dyke Rd. and named Christ Church; weekly services still are held there

1730: Church formally consecrated as Caroline Church, named in honor of the then-queen of Great Britain

1734: Ground around church purchased to build a cemetery

1777: Battle of Setauket fought on village green, just outside the church's doors

SOURCE: Caroline Episcopal Church