Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown has had three burial grounds since 1787. At first people were buried in the adjoining churchyard. Then, in 1818, the College Ground, on the campus of Georgetown College, came into use. A third burial ground was purchased in 1832; originally called the Upper Grave Yard, it was re-named Holy Rood in 1866. Title to the church and its cemeteries remained in the name of Georgetown College, whose Jesuit fathers had founded the parish. It was not until the early 20th century that a transfer of the parish from the University to the Archdiocese began to be discussed.
The maintenance of Holy Rood had been the responsibility of Holy Trinity, which defrayed the expense by the sale of plots, the last of which was sold in 1915. Among the benefits to Holy Trinity of the proposed transfer would have been relief from this burden. Georgetown University therefore proposed to Archbishop Curley that the parish cemetery should convey with the parish. (Coleman Nevils, President of Georgetown University, to Michael J. Curley, Archbishop of Baltimore and Washington, January 9, 1933, Georgetown University Archives)
Archbishop Curley declined. “You are aware of course that many Cemeteries, particularly old ones become horrible eye sores, and in fact 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.” Georgetown was counseled to take the long view of the question. “I think it would be better to keep the title of the Holy Rood Cemetery just where it is. It might be of some use to the University a hundred years from now.” (Michael J. Curley to Coleman Nevils, January 10, 1933, Georgetown University Archives)
So, when the transfer of Holy Trinity to the Archdiocese of Washington took place in 1942, Holy Rood remained in the care of Georgetown University, which had henceforth to foot the bill for its maintenance. As the cemetery produces no revenue to balance its expense, the University’s sense of obligation to Holy Rood is correspondingly slight; a recent university president characterized its policy as one of “minimal upkeep”. (Leo J. O’Donovan, S.J., President, Georgetown University, to Mrs. William B. Bryan, June 10, 1992, Archives of the Archdiocese of Washington)
Minimal upkeep takes its toll. Every stone in Holy Rood has the scars to prove that the lawn crew is in a hurry to get done, and when weed-trees are cut and hauled away, the trucks crush fallen tombstones under their wheels. The caretaker’s house was torn down long ago, and the campus police do not include Holy Rood in their rounds. Vandals have a free hand.
One of the oldest tombstones in Holy Rood Cemetery, scarred by mowing machinery.
When Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown was transferred from Georgetown University to the Archdiocese of Washington, in 1942, it is clear that the university would have preferred not to be saddled with Holy Trinity’s old cemetery. Over the intervening years, however, the rising value of Holy Rood as real estate caused the matter to be seen in a different light, and the question began to be, how long before that value could be realized? In 1933 Archbishop Curley had suggested to Georgetown that a hundred years might be a decent interval before finding a new use for the cemetery. By 1972 this had already come to seem too long, and steps began to be taken to bring the goal nearer.
For Holy Rood to be developed, its graves would have to be transferred to an archdiocesan cemetery. This was a tall order, but the archdiocese turned out to be willing to consider it; it proposed to charge the university up to two million dollars (of which eighty percent would be profit). Perhaps Georgetown found the price too high: there is lengthy gap in the correspondence at this point. Nine years passed, during which lawyers for the archdiocese––who had originally approved the transaction––seem to have become aware of legal concerns. By the time the university resumed the discussion, the archdiocese was no longer interested. (Rev. Edward J. Herrmann, Vicar General, Archdiocese of Washington, to B.V. Bird, Manager, Mount Olivet Cemetery (November 6, 1972); Msgr. Robert T. Marshall to Rev. Edward J. Herrmann (May 2, 1972); B.V. Bird to Board of Directors, Holy Rood Cemetery ([month illegible] 25, 1972); Timothy S. Healy, S.J., President, Georgetown University, to Cardinal James A. Hickey (February 25, 1981): Archives of the Archdiocese of Washington)
Having nowhere to dispose of seven thousand bodies would seem to be an insoluble problem, but Georgetown continued its preparations. A letter from Charles Meng, Vice President for Administration and Facilities, notified the remaining one hundred and nine holders of burial rights that Holy Rood would be closed to further burials, and that they could therefore not be laid to rest with their families. Mr. Meng’s letter did not mention that closing the cemetery was a necessary prerequisite to the “disinterment” of everyone already buried in Holy Rood––including the families of the recipients. (Charles Meng, To Whom It May Concern (May 18, 1984), AAW; Susan Kopacz, Director, Facilities and Administration, quoted in The Hoya (October 29, 1991))
It was at about this time that it was noticed that Holy Rood possessed historical as well as commercial significance. Identification of persons with remaining legal rights had entailed close scrutiny of burial records, in the course of which it seems to have come to Georgetown’s attention that perhaps as many as a hundred slaves had been buried in Holy Rood. Tampering with their graves was sure to offend the living descendants of slaves. To address this difficulty, the president of Georgetown University suggested erecting an “impressive” memorial to the slaves buried in Holy Rood. As nothing ever came of this laudable proposal, it appears to have been contingent on receiving permission to remove the rest of the graves in Holy Rood. (Memorandum of Msgr. Raymond J. Boland, Chancellor, Archdiocese of Washington, of a meeting with Timothy S. Healy (September 24, 1984); Timothy S. Healy, quoted in Msgr. Maurice T. Fox, Office of Archdiocesan Cemeteries, to James A. Hickey (December 21, 1984), AAW)
In 1984, Charles Meng, Georgetown University’s Vice President for Administration and Facilities, notified the remaining holders of burial rights that Holy Rood Cemetery would be closed to further burials. The Archdiocese of Washington, responding to numerous complaints and pleas to intercede that it received from its constituents, attempted to explain that Holy Rood was not part of their jurisdiction. Meanwhile, Archdiocesan files were searched for an explanation as to why the cemetery had not been kept united with its parish in the first place. (Charles Meng, Vice President for Administration & Facilities, To Whom It May Concern (May 18, 1984); Stanton Kolb to James A. Hickey (October 5, 1984); Raymond J. Boland to James A. Hickey (January 7, 1985), Archives of the Archdiocese of Washington)
Many Catholics were unwilling to regard Holy Rood as unconnected to the Archdiocese. (Having learned that Archdiocesan masses for the dead did not include Holy Rood, where his parents and grandparents were buried, one man was not at all happy to be told that his family was covered by whatever masses might be sponsored by Mr. Meng’s office.) Hickey found it necessary to remind President Healy that the Archdiocese had never granted its permission for the cemetery to close, and that the University was bound canonically to honor its contracts with lot-holders. “A unilateral closing [of Holy Rood] may very well result in unnecessary civil litigation which, in turn, could prove burdensome to other Catholic cemeteries.” (Raymond J. Boland to Stanton Kolb (October 10, 1984; James A. Hickey to Timothy S. Healy (November 9, 1984), AAW)
The aggrieved holders of burial rights in Holy Rood went further, and took Georgetown University to court. The consent decree they obtained in 1984 has obliged Georgetown to keep the cemetery open ever since, and to honor all remaining contracts. This was a setback for Georgetown, but no more than that, as the University will surely outlive the plaintiffs: when the University has buried the last of them, it can close Holy Rood for good. “The University takes the position that someday, somehow, the University must be allowed to convert this property from cemetery property to some other use.” (Kolb et al vs. President and Trustees of Georgetown University, CA 14338-84, December, 1984; Timothy S. Healy, quoted in Maurice T. Fox to James A. Hickey (December 21, 1984), AAW)
While commercial development of the cemetery, with the Archdiocese accepting the transfer of thousands of remains, is difficult to imagine, there is no way to know whether the University has actually drawn this conclusion. In its guarded public statements, at any rate, Georgetown had “no plans” for Holy Rood. (Julie Bataille, Assistant Vice President for Communications, quoted by Charles Bermpohl in The Current, October 30, 2002)
In 2015, Georgetown University installed a handsome sign at the gate of Holy Rood Cemetery, acknowledging that the University “currently” owns it.
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