A black cat scurried across Richie Ashburn's Gladwyne Village grave site on a gloomy Thursday morning, an eerie omen of the ill fortune some believe awaits the Phillies legend's final resting place.
Ashburn, a daughter, and an infant grandson are buried in a modest plot behind a 172-year-old church abandoned two years ago by Gladwyne United Methodist's dwindling congregation. His 1997 funeral took place at that church, as did the baptisms and marriages of several of his children.
Now the peeling structure on Righters Mill Road has become the centerpiece of a development battle, one that pits Main Line real estate investors against some concerned neighbors and the family of the beloved ballplayer and broadcaster.
If plans for Gladwyne Commons are approved by Lower Merion Township officials, two parking spaces would abut the Hall of Famer's grave, and a nearby family memorial garden would be uprooted.
That garden, just a few feet from Ashburn's plot, was dedicated to daughter Jan Ashburn, who died at 33 in a 1987 auto accident. It still is tended by Ashburn's 84-year-old widow, Herbie.
"I don't yet have the entire picture as to what the developer is planning, but it doesn't sound very good at this point," said Jan Morrison, another of Ashburn's daughters and the mother of the infant interred there. "I'm just thinking about how this is going to impact my family members who are buried there. My mother has put a lot of hard work into the memorial garden for my sister, and that will probably be destroyed."
Mac Brand, a partner in the developing firm, Main Line Realty Partners, insisted that a fence would separate Ashburn's grave from the parking spots. As for the garden, she said it could be relocated anywhere in a cemetery that will be managed by a nonprofit caretaking board.
"Nothing is going to happen to that [Ashburn] grave site," Brand said. "We're having a 6-foot shadowbox fence built between [the] cemetery and parking space. And we recommend that Herbie move the garden inside the new cemetery so it can be maintained by the nonprofit group. If she doesn't like that, we can move it somewhere else. Whatever Herbie wants, that's what we're going to do."
Plans for Gladwyne Commons call for nine residences - priced from $600,000 to $1.1 million - and 18 parking spaces along the south side of Righters Mill Road in a neighborhood once known as Merion Square.
The church would be converted into three condominiums. Two new homes would be added on its flanks. Two adjacent church buildings, including the old parsonage, would be restored. A former Oddfellows lodge, already owned by the developer, would be divided into two residences. And the adjoining church and Oddfellows cemeteries would be combined under the care of a nonprofit caretaking board.
"Lower Merion has developed an ordinance that allows these kinds of historic places to be saved," said Brand. "Otherwise they decay, and somebody comes along and razes them."
The neighbors' concerns, meanwhile, are broader than the Ashburns'. In addition to unease about traffic patterns and the integrity of the cemeteries, they don't want to see the historic church vacated and gutted.
Shortly after the Methodist congregation disbanded in 2011, an Anglo-Catholic Christian group, the John Newman Fellowship, moved in. That group has been told by the current owners, the United Methodist Eastern Pennsylvania Council, that it must vacate the building by June 30.
"We're planning to do the same thing with an old Methodist church in Narberth," Brand said. "It's sad, but [the number of abandoned churches] is a trend not just in Lower Merion but in Pennsylvania and across the U.S."
The developer's plans to buy the church and auxiliary buildings hinge on the ability to obtain approvals from Lower Merion authorities.
During the first week of June, the development will be on the agendas of several township agencies, including the Planning Commission, the Board of Commissioners, and the Historical Architectural Review Board.
In the meantime, the efforts of neighborhood opponents will be focused on the cemetery. One of them, Christine McGuire, has old church records that indicate there could be a row of unmarked graves closer than Ashburn's to the proposed parking spaces.
The one remaining headstone in that vicinity is that of a Civil War veteran, Morton C. Carr.
"We've also found records that indicate a John Wagner was buried there [just in front of the Ashburn plot] and a Bartram Worrell. We've managed to track the Wagner family to Ohio, but as yet we haven't been able to determine anything more."
According to McGuire, if a cemetery is deemed inactive, the owner can apply for a permit to relocate graves. Though more than 350 plots are available in the Oddfellows cemetery, the developers have said they won't sell any in deference to the new homeowners.
"Our fear," McGuire said, "is that once the developers own both cemeteries, they'd seek a permit to relocate any bodies that are even closer to the parking. There's nothing to stop them from moving bodies, including the Ashburns. We want to ask the township for time so that we can bring in ground-penetrating sonar to find out for sure what's there."
'Wonderful little place'
The church, built in 1841 and the oldest surviving place of worship in Gladwyne, is in a designated township historic district. Some of its contents, including the stained-glass windows, are rare antiques, McGuire said.
"The parish using the church now wants to stay, wants to continue renting it," McGuire said. "They're using the church for its original intended purpose. We'd like to see them stay.
"We're not against the development," she added. "She could sell the other buildings and make money. We just don't want to see the Methodist cemetery destroyed by parking. And we don't want to see that beautiful historic church gutted."
In the meantime, the Ashburn family plans to attend those township meetings, questioning this sudden intrusion on their loved ones' graves and the quaint country church they once attended.
"My dad is buried there. And my child," Morrison said. "I hope it's not destroyed. We all went to that church. It's a wonderful little place."