Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Holy Rood Cemetery, Washington DC

On a recent trip to Washington DC I was intrigued by the sight of a cemetery on a hill across the street from my hotel in Georgetown. Upon further exploration, I found Holy Rood, a sad and decrepit urban cemetery. While walking through Holy Rood, I knew nothing about its history, but from the poor state of upkeep it was fairly evident that it is no longer an active cemetery. This photograph sums up Holy Rood pretty well -

Toppled, cracked and weathered headstones on an unkempt lawn. I have to admit, there is something kind of poetic about an old cemetery going back to nature. It's simply the natural progression of things, nothing lasts forever. That is not Holy Rood. To say the least, this cemetery is not old enough to be in this bad of condition.

Some history: Holy Rood Cemetery was the third established burial ground for Georgetown’s Holy Trinity Church. It was purchased for Holy Trinity in 1832 as they outgrew their original churchyard and second burial ground on the campus of Georgetown College (now Georgetown University). Originally called the Upper Grave Yard, it was renamed Holy Rood in 1866. Rood is another word for cross or crucifix. Georgetown College owned both Holy Trinity Church and Holy Rood Cemetery, which had been founded by the Jesuit fathers of the school. Holy Trinity was able to maintain the cemetery for many years through the sale of cemetery plots. The last plot was sold in 1915 and a transfer of ownership from the university to the Archdioceses was proposed.
Perhaps Holy Rood may have met a different fate if the transfer had taken place, but the church was not interested in taking responsibility for the cemetery. In the Georgetown University Archives are the correspondence between Coleman Nevils, the president of the university, and Michael Curley, the Archbishop of Baltimore and Washington.
On January 10, 1933 Archbishop Curley wrote to Nevils, saying “You are aware of course that many cemeteries, particularly old ones become horrible eye sores, and in face a disgrace to the Church. We have some of them here, no longer in use within City limits, and no one can be found to take the slightest interest in them until a proposition is made to sell them to the City or to remove the remains, then a thousand silent friends of the dead become vocal.” Sad, but pragmatic I suppose. Holy Trinity Church was transferred into the Archdiocese of Washington in 1942, but the cemetery remained in the possession of Georgetown University. As there was no longer revenue from plot sales to balance the expense of upkeep, suffice to say maintenance has been minimal. On top of the natural wear to the cemetery, apparently campus police do not patrol Holy Rood and vandalism has clearly been rampant. (Historical information from the Newsletter of the Catholic Historical Society of Washington, Volume X, Number 3, July-September 2002).

While exploring Holy Rood, I wondered why plots hadn’t been sold in a large empty area in the back of the cemetery, thinking perhaps this could have helped continue upkeep. It wasn’t until I started researching that I found out this large section was not actually empty of graves, only lacking in markers. Holy Trinity Church maintains detailed records of the burials in each of its three historic cemeteries, and in the first seven years of operations at Holy Rood over a hundred slaves were buried there. Some of the church records I found read:
Nancy Smallwood, a Col’d woman belonging to Mr. Ignatius Clarke
July 7, 1833

Chloe Nolan, age 12, a (Coloured) Guirl belonging to Mrs. Emely Forest August 7, 1834

_________, age 7 days, the offspring of Mrs. Brooke’s slave, who stayed with Mr. L. Carbery November 3, 1834

Ignatius Rhodes, age 50, slave to Judge Morsell June 19, 1835

Reading about these African Americans I was struck by the lack of dignity they had to endure during their lives, and now the lack of dignity they're treated with in death.

Holy Rood is also the final resting place of many Union veterans of the Civil War. This sadly weathered grave belongs to Private Peter McGirr of Company K, 23rd Pennsylvania Infantry. He died in 1899.
The grave of Joeseph Nevitt, a Revolutionary War Veteran is at Holy Rood. Unfortunately I didn’t get a picture of his new grave marker, courtesy of the Daughters of the American Revolution. He has his own fascinating story, if you’re interested read about him here:

I could be more understanding of the condition of Holy Rood Cemetery if it were privately owned with no remaining owners to uphold the charter, or belonging to a now defunct church with no remaining parishioners to help with upkeep. But this cemetery is owned by Georgetown University, one of the most prestigious schools in the area. The neglect is certainly not a result of a lack of funds, only a lack of regard, which I find sad and disrespectful. Hopefully somebody will take notice of Holy Rood before it's too late, as Georgetown has been pretty clear they not in the business of maintaining a cemetery -  “The University takes the position that someday, somehow, the University must be allowed to convert this property from cemetery property to some other use,” (Julie Bataille, Assistant Vice President for Communications, quoted by Charles Bermpohl in The Current, October 30, 2002).

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this! It cleared up the whole "Trinity Church Upper Yard vs Holy Rood" issue for me! I'm planning on spending a day here soon to photograph and catalogue. Looks like it's in a sorry state, and you're right--that's not right.