FRAMINGHAM - In what is now the oldest, most overgrown corner of St. George Cemetery, Anne Collins buried her 6-month-old son in 1861, and a few months later, her 26-year-old husband. Nearby, in a shady spot now nearly hidden by trees, Patrick Murphy bid farewell to his wife, Bridget, in 1884 with a simple stone carrying a straightforward message: "May her soul rest in peace. Amen."
But that rest may no longer be so peaceful. The cellular giant T-Mobile is seeking to build a soaring 100-foot-tall cellphone tower in a wooded patch at the edge of the graveyard. The Archdiocese of Boston, which owns the cemetery, has approved the plan and agreed to lease the spot to the company.
The proposal - which still must be approved by Framingham's Zoning Board of Appeals - has enraged the Cherry Street Neighborhood Association, a band of several dozen self-appointed guardians who say that installing the planned tower and a surrounding 8-foot-tall fence violates the memories of people buried nearby.
"This is a sacred place," said Margaret Sleczkowski, who has been living in a cottage next to the cemetery for 38 years. Her eyes welled up with angry tears when she talked about the prospect of maintenance trucks driving past the hundreds of old gravestones on the property's only access road to the woods.
Sleczkowski said the cemetery's dead "depend on us to protect them."
The Boston Archdiocese maintains that the proposed tower is disrespectful neither to the dead nor to the living trying to pay their respects.
"We would never do anything to desecrate a cemetery," said Terrence Donilon, a spokesman for the archdiocese. "We are responsible for the perpetual care of the loved ones who are in our cemeteries. Under no circumstances would we tolerate, nor would we act in a way that would break that bond of commitment that we have."
T-Mobile executives said the graveyard tower is needed to improve what are commonly known as dead spots - an irony that may or may not have occurred to them. The officials say that motorists zooming between Exits 12 and 13 on the Massachusetts Turnpike experience interruptions in their cellphone service and that the new tower, which would be located less than a mile from the turnpike, would resolve the problem.
"We are trying to reach our customers who are increasingly in suburban areas," said Gerald Marquis, the company's regional real estate manager. "It is hard to find a good location with minimal impact [on homes], and we thought this location would be less invasive."
The archdiocese said it accepted the plan because it had minimal impact on the area. "We're not interested in being bad neighbors," said Donilon.
The 11-acre graveyard is a faded relic of the peak of Irish immigration, a time when millions fled desperate famine and poverty for a new life in Boston. During the 1850s, when St. George parish on School Street was one of the biggest Catholic congregations in Eastern Massachusetts, its pastor bought the Cherry Street land for an expanded burying ground.
Today, the cemetery is all but inactive, save for a handful of burials over the past few years. Miniature American flags and Framingham Police Department banners wave from the newer plots, but visitors paying their respects - when there are any visitors - are generally elderly and frail, neighbors say.
In recent years, local residents have started to maintain the graves out of a sense of duty. They pick up litter and warn off groups of teenagers who occasionally try to gather there at night.
When they learned of the cell tower plan, the neighbors quickly collected 80 signatures objecting to the proposed flagpole-style tower - a "monopole" - which would sit on a 24-square-foot base shielded from view by heavy woods in an undeveloped section of the cemetery, about 40 yards away from marked gravesites.
As cellphone use has exploded worldwide, cell towers - many even disguised to look like trees - have become ubiquitous. Some Boston suburbs, like neighboring Lincoln, even went to court to ban them in the late 1990s, but generally cellphone companies have reached quiet agreements to erect inconspicuous antennas every few miles in the markets where they compete for customers.
T-Mobile recently entered into a $20,000-per-year agreement with the town of Littleton to plant a flagpole-style tower in a municipal cemetery there, town officials said. The Archdiocese has allowed cell companies to rent space in church steeples, but said this is the first archdiocesan deal to use graveyard space for a freestanding tower. Donilon would not specify how much T-Mobile would pay to lease the Framingham land.
The Framingham neighbors said they have nothing against progress. During a gathering last weekend at the site of the proposed tower, mobile phones belonging to members jangled several times. A few who own homes very close to the site said they worry about possible health effects from living so close to a large tower.
Most said they simply felt protective toward the cemetery. Hallowed ground is no place for a cell tower, said neighborhood association member Kathleen Howland, and the Archdiocese should have rebuffed T-Mobile.
"I understand they are short on money, but offending more people is not the answer," she said.
Howland said she is not a religious person, but loves taking meditative walks in the cemetery and fears that deer, foxes, wild turkeys, and other wildlife in the abutting woods would be driven away by construction.
Association member Patty Osborne said that because her own family is buried far away, she decided to take on beautification duties for the headstone of Jane and Robert E. Wigmore about three years ago. The Wigmores died in 1923, and it appeared that few people had been by to pay respects since the couple's children were interred there in 1934 and 1940, she said.
The Wigmore graves are a safe distance up a small hill from the access road and proposed cell tower site, but the T-Mobile plan bothers Osborne tremendously.
"How can they be sure they aren't disturbing graves back there?" asked her husband, Joel, pointing to where the graveyard meets the woods, where an old, half-buried stone marker and displaced grave decorations were visible.
Donilon said the church's cemetery association took over the graveyard in 1953 and the wooded area where the cell tower would stand has never been used for burials.
Nevertheless, neighbors say they'll be out in full force when Framingham's zoning board holds a hearing on the application on Monday.
"This shouldn't be done to dead people," said Sleczkowski. "They can't speak up."
Erica Noonan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org