Sometimes a church has existed so long that not only has it outlived its institutional memory but may have existed long enough to cross from one legal era to another. While such a church is so rare that it might be expected that any resulting legal problem might not be generally instructive, that is not true. Indeed, church litigation often swirls around missing insurance policies, old sets of superseded church bylaws, or contracts that simply lapsed but no one recalled it so that it could be renewed or extended.
The case of First Congregational Church of Harwich v Eldredge, 2017 WL 3581629 (Mass. Land Court, 2017), the church was founded on a land title from 1743. The separation of church and state in Massachusetts, according to the Court, did not occur until 1833. The church cemetery had to be maintained by the Town of Harwich because of the Great Depression and a state statute authorized such private cemeteries to be preserved in that era of financial calamity. The church by the 20th Century came to use one section of the cemetery and the Court held that the filed titles did not end the church’s ownership of that part of the cemetery and also held the church owned that portion of the cemetery, if for no other reason, by adverse possession.
The church was able to prove the alternative ownership theory of adverse possession through both publicly filed documents the document archives of itself and the Town. For example, one letter from 1989 had been inscribed with identifiable handwritten notes of a telephone call that tended to establish the Town was on notice for adverse possession purposes of the church’s claim to that part of the cemetery. In the age of the scanner, keeping hard copy is no longer essential if the digital version is reasonably well preserved against mishap. A combination of local storage and cloud storage can assure document survival. Most external portable hard drives will fit in safe deposit box if cloud storage is not deemed acceptable. But, all document storage, hardcopy or digital, requires disciplined process implementation and training each successive generation of church office personnel.