Holy Rood Cemetery in the Press

A compilation of articles about the revival of Holy Rood Cemetery.





‘It Shows a Disrespect for the Dead’

Condition of Holy Rood Cemetery Upsets Family Members of Deceased

by Jacqueline L. Salmon

Washington Post, August 28, 2008



Holy Rood Cemetery sits along Wisconsin Avenue, just up the street from upscale restaurants, stylish dress shops and stores that sell antiques. But the 176-year-old cemetery, owned by Georgetown University, doesn’t match the elegance of its surroundings. Headstones lie shattered on the ground. Tall grass and weed trees obscure some of the burial plots. Dead brush is piled on top of graves. An asphalt path is broken and weed-choked.

For neighborhood residents and relatives of those interred there, the cemetery is a deeply upsetting sight. Bill O’Keefe, whose parents’ graves are at Holy Rood, has visited twice in the past 10 months, and his reaction was the same both times.

“I was simply appalled that a university like Georgetown didn’t care enough to do moderate or reasonable maintenance,” said O’Keefe, a retired association executive. “It’s supposed to be holy ground. . . . I just think it shows a disrespect for the dead.”

The university says that although it performs regular maintenance — cutting the grass and removing trees — and recently rebuilt the retaining wall along Wisconsin Avenue, it is aware of the broader problems.

“We’re in the process of evaluating options and additional restoration and repair,” university spokeswoman Julie Green Bataille said. “We know that work needs to be done, and we’re trying to develop what next steps may be appropriate.”

A predominantly Irish and German Catholic cemetery, the 6.5-acre burial ground in Glover Park had its peak from 1832, when it opened as the third graveyard of Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown, until the 1930s. It still has an occasional burial, making it the oldest active Catholic cemetery in the District.

When Holy Trinity, which was founded by the Jesuits of then-Georgetown College, was transferred to the Archdiocese of Washington in 1942, Holy Rood remained in the care of Georgetown University.

It has not been a happy combination, according to research by local historian Carlton Fletcher. Over the years, the university has appeared at times to be a reluctant cemetery owner, skimping on maintenance, fighting with owners of burial plots and, at one point, seeking to remove the graves so that the land could be developed.

Georgetown proposed in the 1970s that the Archdiocese of Washington take over the 7,000 graves, and the archdiocese proposed to charge the university $2 million. The deal eventually fell apart.

Correspondence unearthed by Fletcher quotes Georgetown University President Timothy Healy saying in 1984: “The University takes the position that someday, somehow, the University must be allowed to convert this property from cemetery property to some other use.”

Although that plan seems to have been dropped — spokeswoman Bataille said the university has no plans to develop the property — the school’s relations with relatives of those buried there and the owners of burial contracts have been contentious for decades.

In the early 1980s, Georgetown notified holders of burial rights that the cemetery would not accept more burials. But the holders sued, obtaining a consent decree in 1984 that forced the university to keep the cemetery open and honor all contracts.

Relatives of the dead have complained for years about the property’s condition. After receiving a number of complaints, the Archdiocese of Washington, which runs five major cemeteries and numerous parish burial grounds, approached Georgetown in 1992 and offered assistance caring for Holy Rood, archdiocese spokeswoman Susan Gibbs said. Georgetown turned down the offer, she said.

The property, which sits on a rise of land off busy Wisconsin, borders Whitehaven Park on the south. Burial records are in Georgetown University’s libraries, so researchers have delved deeply into the life stories of the dead. As many as 1,000 free Catholic blacks and slaves are believed to be buried there, although many are in unmarked graves or were buried with wooden markers that rotted away.

Other graves hold Catholic hoteliers, butchers, laborers, maids, war veterans, mothers who died in childbirth, victims of the 1918 influenza epidemic and many others.

“There may be people of both races in and around Washington who are only dimly aware that they have a relative buried here,” Fletcher said as he led a recent tour of the cemetery.

Neighbors say homeless people sometimes sleep there, and blame patrons of nearby bars for vandalism in the cemetery. On a recent visit, a pair of women’s underpants lay crumpled between two gravestones.

David O’Connor, a retired government worker who has 20 relatives buried at Holy Rood, has been visiting the cemetery and researching its inhabitants for 30 years. He said that upkeep of the grounds has improved slightly in recent years — foliage has been pruned and the grass cut more frequently — but that lawn mowers show “little respect” for the gravestones. He said he has seen them run into headstones with their equipment. Many headstones have scratches and gouges.

Vandalism has increased sharply in recent years, he said. One of his family’s headstones has been knocked over, he said.

“It saddens me,” O’Connor said. “You can look over the sweep of the cemetery and there is so much missing and so much knocked down… Every time I go there, it is worse.”


(Jacqueline L. Salmon, “’It Shows a Disrespect for the Dead’; Condition of Holy Rood Cemetery Upsets Family Members of Deceased”, Washington Post, August 28, 2008, p.DE1)






Holy Rood: A Cemetery With a Tell-Tale Heart

The Hoya, October 7, 2011

by Jonathan Gillis, Hoya Staff Writer


Holy Rood Cemetery has all the looks of a haunted graveyard. Perched at the crest of a hill and held above Wisconsin Avenue by a stone wall, the cemetery looks from the street like the setting of an Edgar Allen Poe thriller. It serves as a solemn gatekeeper to the neighborhood of Glover Park.

Inside, however, Holy Rood is a treasure trove of American history. Home to the remains of former slaves, Irish and German immigrants and at least one veteran of the Revolutionary War, the graveyard is also, strangely enough, the property of Georgetown University.

Carlton Fletcher knows Holy Rood inside and out. Fletcher, a 40-year resident of Glover Park, is the neighborhood’s unofficial historian. He has spent the last 15 years combing archives and indexes, and has compiled a thorough history of the entire neighborhood. Holy Rood, however, has been a focal point of his research.

Sitting on his front porch on a cool Wednesday morning, Fletcher explains why the graveyard piqued his interest.

“I started studying my neighborhood history in 1995, and almost immediately it became clear to me that the most historical, most venerable part of our area was the Holy Rood Cemetery,” he says. “It’s a fascinating place. It has lots to learn from it. It’s not very well understood by most people what it is.”

What it is, he explains, is an old parish cemetery, one that took in Catholics from all walks of life, charging the rich and burying the poor for free. It is a motley graveyard full of contradictions, with wealthy Washingtonians lying alongside black slaves. It is almost every aspect of Georgetown’s history clustered into one hilltop.

An Unwelcome Deed

Holy Rood Cemetery was founded in 1832 as the third parish graveyard for Holy Trinity Church. At the time, Holy Trinity fell under the watchful eye of the Jesuits at Georgetown College, so the school was listed as the rightful owner on the land deed. Parishioners were charged with the upkeep of the yard, but the university kept meticulous records of the burials that occurred there.

In 1942, Holy Trinity Church transferred into the new archdiocese of Washington, leaving its graveyard in the hands of the university. Georgetown protested, arguing that the Archdiocese should assume responsibility for the cemetery’s care, but the archbishop refused, suggesting that the land may be useful to the school in the future. The university ended up with a 100-year-old graveyard that it hadn’t wanted in the first place.

Eventually, university officials decided that there was a better use for the plot, and they began to investigate the possibility of exhuming the remains and developing the land. With views of the Capitol building, the National Cathedral and the Washington Monument, the old cemetery was a gold mine of real estate value, and if the university could find somewhere else for the bodies, it would be able to cash in on the true value of the land.

University officials contacted the archdiocese to discuss their options. Initially, it seemed that the archdiocese would agree to help exhume and rebury the bodies, but legal troubles eventually caused the deal to cave. Nevertheless, the university decided in 1984 that it would close the cemetery to burials as the first step toward development.

A public outcry followed. Several families still owned unused burial plots in the cemetery, and they took Georgetown to court, arguing that they still had a right to the land. In the end, they won, and the university was required to keep the cemetery open until the last contract had been fulfilled.

‘Skimping on Maintenance’

These days, the cemetery seems unthreatened, at least by university architects. The 1984 attempt to develop the land came as a public relations black eye to the university, and since then it has not introduced any new movements to remove the graves.

“There are currently no plans to develop the land,” Rachel Pugh, director for media relations, wrote in an email.

That does not mean, however, that the university has had a change of heart.

“Georgetown maintains Holy Rood cemetery,” Fletcher says, “But it does not do it with enthusiasm.”

In fact, in 2008, the university came under fire for its negligent care of the cemetery. An Aug. 28 article in The Washington Post drew attention to the poor state of the yard, blaming Georgetown for “skimping on maintenance.” According to the article, toppled tombstones and thick weeds frustrated neighbors, some of whom had relatives buried in the graveyard. Bill O’Keefe told the Post that he was saddened every time he went to visit his parents’ graves.

“I was simply appalled that a university like Georgetown didn’t care enough to do moderate or reasonable maintenance,” he told the Post. “It’s supposed to be holy ground … I just think it shows a disrespect for the dead.”

In response to The Washington Post article, the university cleaned up the graveyard to a certain extent, though a walk through the cemetery still reveals shattered headstones and marred monuments. Fletcher also points to a thick overgrowth that he says still covers several graves,

“It’s not really their fault,” Fletcher says of the maintenance crew that cares for the graveyard. “I think they give the guys a week to take care of it all, and no one is going to take hand shears and go around each individual grave,” he says.

The university contends that it invests plenty of resources into graveyard preservation.

“Georgetown performs routine maintenance at Holy Rood — including mowing the grass, removing decayed trees, repairing the fence and conducting spot security checks,” Pugh wrote in a different email. “These costs are covered out of our facilities operating budget.”

In response to charges that Georgetown has skimped on its monetary commitment, Pugh also recalled a major renovation that occurred about six years ago.

“A few years ago the University spent more than $1.5 million to repair the retaining wall adjacent to Wisconsin Ave,” she wrote.

Recently, there have been murmurs of a revitalization project sponsored by Holy Trinity Church. In a Sept. 20 article on Patch.com, writer Susan Bunnell noted that Holy Trinity Church has discussed the possibility with its parishioners.

“Holy Trinity Catholic Church has been asking its parishioners about the feasibility of negotiating with Georgetown University to have the cemetery returned and to begin improvements,” Bunnell wrote.

It is unclear whether the university is on board.

A Story of Heroes

Admittedly, the Holy Rood narrative can make Georgetown out to be the villain, but Fletcher takes care to debunk that view. In fact, he says, Georgetown’s emphasis on record keeping likely saved the cemetery’s history from fading away.

Parishes, he explains, are notorious for their failure to keep accurate records, and it is likely that Holy Trinity Parish would not have been as precise as the university archivists.

“If Holy Trinity and Holy Rood had not been under Georgetown, then records would not have been kept. If it wasn’t for Georgetown, none of this would have survived,” he says.

Fletcher says that he can also understand why the university may be frustrated with the land.

“The university has the property, and they can’t do anything useful with it. … Georgetown is not in the business of keeping graveyards.”

Still, walking between the tombstones, it is hard to imagine Holy Rood being dug up and replaced by a university complex, especially because it seems like Fletcher can point out something notable in almost every direction.

Take, for example, the gravesite of Joseph Nevitt. Located on the far fringes of the cemetery, Nevitt’s gravestone stands just two feet tall and bears only his name, dates and age. Fletcher, though, recognized the name as he was sifting through records of Revolutionary War pensions, and was able to identify Nevitt as a minuteman from Maryland. That two-foot gravestone is one of the last marks of a seasoned veteran of the Revolutionary War.

“He was the kind of man that as he walked through Georgetown, people pointed and said ‘That man was a Revolution hero,'” Fletcher says, standing by his tombstone.

About 50 yards away, Fletcher motions to the gravesite of Thomas Henry French, another war veteran, this time one who was present at the Battle of Little Bighorn. French ended up fighting just a few miles away from Custer’s Last Stand. Though he survived the brutal campaign against the Indians of the West, he succumbed to alcoholism just a few years later.

The tour could go on for hours, but Fletcher has to get back home.

Grounded in Contradictions

It sounds bizarre to call a cemetery an oasis, but for Glover Park neighbors, Holy Rood seems to be just that. One man sits on a crumbled gravesite and reads the New York Times. Another patrols the far fence, walking casually with his thoughts. Fletcher says that the homeless sometimes even set up camp in the middle of the cemetery. For a park designed to honor the dead, it seems strangely alive.

On the western side of the graveyard, a birdwatcher keeps a lookout for migratory species. He says that he used to enjoy the cemetery more when it was overgrown; back then, he could see more deer.

Nowadays, he says, the deer are mostly gone, but the does still return to give birth. It seems a contradiction — new life in the midst of all the death — but in Holy Rood, that contradiction seems to be right at home.






Forsaken Obligations in Holy Rood

by Hunter Estes, a junior in the School of Foreign Service.

The Hoya, April 19, 2018


The words “Holy Rood” are a reference to the sacred relic of the cross upon which Jesus Christ was crucified. Holy Rood also, however, refers to a seemingly forgotten cemetery on Wisconsin Avenue, the care of which was entrusted to our university.

Furthermore, the cemetery is one of the largest slave burial grounds in the country, and if Georgetown University is committed to reconciling with its historical connection to slavery, then it must protect this land and respect the history of those buried there.

In 1832, Holy Trinity Church established a burial ground on what is now Wisconsin Avenue. In 1942, the Archdiocese of Washington entrusted Georgetown with the important task of caring for the land — now the cemetery known as Holy Rood.

The historical site contains the graves of Revolutionary War heroes, priests, the founder of Tenleytown and hundreds of Georgetown residents. Moreover, up to 1,000 freed and enslaved black people are buried in the cemetery in unmarked graves. Holy Rood is most likely the most documented slave burial ground in all of Washington, D.C., according to historians of Glover Park, which encompasses Holy Rood.

The cemetery has recently fallen into disrepair because of a lack of attention. Many of the tombstones have been broken or vandalized. Trash often lays scattered around the cemetery. The entire fence line is crumbling, and the back field of the cemetery, which is also the oldest part — and where most of the enslaved and freed black people were buried — is, sadly, used by neighbors as a dog park. Little has been done to preserve and respect the memory of those buried in Holy Rood, which means many of the graves have been lost over the burial ground’s 186-year history.


Georgetown has an obligation to honor the memories of the individuals buried in Holy Rood.

Under the leadership of President Fr. Timothy Healy, S.J., in 1984, Georgetown explored the option of exhuming the bodies buried in the cemetery and selling the land. As the land sits at one of the highest points in D.C., it has a beautiful view of the Rosslyn, Va., skyline and would likely sell for a high price. However, the university is barred from selling the land because of D.C. law surrounding burial rights.

Thankfully, the land was not sold; however, it is still sparsely attended to. Opinion writers published in The Washington Post and The Hoya have both criticized the university for its disregard for the cemetery before. These pieces encouraged the university to recommit itself to its care for the grounds in years past. Today, we need a new commitment by the university to Holy Rood.

Georgetown’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation yielded much positive change, including the renaming of buildings and exploring the stories of modern descendants of the 272 slaves sold by Georgetown. However, if we as Georgetown community members are truly committed to the process of reconciliation, we must reflect and change our care of Holy Rood Cemetery.

April 16 was Emancipation Day, and in an effort to continue a discussion of Georgetown’s involvement in the legacy of slavery, the Office of the President hosted a conversation on Anne Marie Becraft, who founded a day school for girls of color and for whom we recently named a campus dormitory.

Becraft herself is intricately connected to Holy Rood Cemetery: Holy Rood’s archives reveal at least a dozen of Becraft’s direct family members are buried there. If we are truly committed to remembering and preserving Becraft’s legacy, we must preserve the grounds in which her family is buried.

Georgetown needs to take action and correct the failures of its past care. First, it should be made clear through signage that dogs are not allowed in the park. The university should also consider gating off the grounds to discourage dog walkers from bringing dogs into the cemetery.

Moreover, the university should place a plaque that recognizes the historic nature of the cemetery and the hundreds of unmarked graves that exist in the back area of the holy ground.

Georgetown should ensure the cemetery has a regularized maintenance schedule, so grass remains well-trimmed and trash is removed. Furthermore, grounds crews should be given the time necessary to properly care for the land, as years of hasty mowing jobs have left tombstones marred by cuts and marks.

The university should also invest in the removal of the crumbling, decrepit back fence of the cemetery and trim back the decaying trees that hang over the back grounds.

Finally, other ways to pay respect to the history of the cemetery should be discussed further with the President’s office, as well as continuing the work of the Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation. Georgetown has an obligation to honor the memories of the individuals buried in Holy Rood.

Too few students know the story behind Holy Rood. The sacred ground was entrusted to this university. We are bound by a duty to preserve it. Georgetown’s foundational Catholic faith calls the school to respect those who have passed, something it has failed to fully do for this cemetery.

If we are truly committed to the process of reconciling with the university’s past, the next step must be centered around proper care for the burial grounds that continue to call to mind our university’s connection to slavery.





Holy Rood Cemetery to Be Restored by Georgetown, Holy Trinity Catholic Church

Georgetown University News

November 13, 2018


Georgetown and its neighbor Holy Trinity Catholic Church announced a plan today to restore Wisconsin Avenue’s Holy Rood Cemetery, including repairs to existing infrastructure and new enhancements to landscaping, the roadway and the cemetery entrance.

“Georgetown University appreciates the opportunity to collaborate with Holy Trinity Parish on this important work,” said Rev. Mark Bosco, S.J., the university’s vice president for mission and ministry. “The cemetery links our rich history not only with the Jesuit parish, but with the entire Georgetown community.”

Holy Rood Cemetery, located at 2126 Wisconsin Ave. N.W., on a hillside north of the university, was established in 1832 as Holy Trinity’s parish cemetery.

Named after the Scottish term “haly ruid,” meaning “holy cross,” the cemetery sits on six-and-a-half acres of land located a quarter mile northeast of the parish.


“Holy Garden”

The last cemetery lot at Holy Rood was sold in 1915, and the site was closed to further burials in 1985.

Georgetown has maintained the grounds ever since, conducting landscape maintenance and headstone repairs. In 2002, the university rebuilt the stone retaining wall along Wisconsin Avenue. It also erected an entrance sign in early 2015.

The new plan includes cosmetic repairs to headstones, the resurfacing of roadways, the repair of the existing crypt exterior, the installation of ornamental iron fencing and enhancing the entrance hardscape and landscaping.

“Through our joint efforts, Holy Rood will become a Holy Garden where parishioners and others can pray for their deceased loved ones,” said Holy Trinity Pastor C. Kevin Gillespie, S.J., “and where current and future members of our community can have a final resting place for their remains in this beautiful sacred space overlooking the city.”


Perpetual Care

Holy Trinity and Georgetown will establish a Perpetual Care Endowment for Holy Rood. There have been more than 7,000 burials at Holy Rood since its inception, including that of Revolutionary War veteran Joseph Nevitt and European immigrants who came to America in the 19th century.

There are also many marked burials of free blacks, including family members of the pioneering educator Anne Marie Becraft, in addition to unmarked graves of African Americans who were enslaved.Future efforts around memorialization and historical study will take place in collaboration with a diverse set of stakeholders, including descendants of enslaved people buried at the site.





The Revival of Holy Rood Cemetery

Randy Rieland, Glover Park Gazette,

April, 2019


In its own way, Holy Rood Cemetery is coming back to life. This fall, after roughly six months of restoration and construction, it will again become a final resting place for the newly departed. In November, urns containing their cremated remains will be placed in niches in either a newly constructed columbarium or the renovated brownstone crypt that’s been a landmark of the cemetery. They will be the first interments at Holy Rood since the 1990s.

It’s the latest chapter in the tangled tale of what is probably the most historically significant slice of Glover Park. The six-and-a-half acre site on the hillside where 35th Street intersects with Wisconsin Avenue became a graveyard 187 years ago, one of three parish cemeteries serving Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown. But since the Jesuit priests at nearby Georgetown College oversaw the church, the school’s name is on the deed for the property.

The situation changed in 1942 after Holy Trinity became part of the newly formed Archdiocese of Washington. The university wanted the archdiocese to take over the operation and maintenance of Holy Rood (a Scottish term meaning Holy Cross), but the latter balked. So, Georgetown remained the owner, albeit not happily. In 1984, it seriously considered exhuming all the bodies and developing the property, but a lawsuit by the survivors of people buried there stymied that plan.

Ultimately, Georgetown University agreed to keep the cemetery open to visitors and maintain the grounds, although not very diligently. The grass was cut, but weeding and other landscaping has been sporadic, and the grounds are now dotted with toppled tombstones. That said, Georgetown did spend $1.5 million in 2002 to replace the deteriorating stone retaining wall along Wisconsin.


A View into 19th Century Washington

According to research by Glover Park resident and historian Carlton Fletcher, there have been more than 7,300 burials in Holy Rood, plus an unknown number of unidentified graves in the northwest corner of the cemetery. This section, set aside for the poor, likely is where slaves who were Holy Trinity parishioners are buried.

Elsewhere, marked graves offer a window into 19th century Washington. At the western edge is the tombstone of a Revolutionary War veteran, Joseph Nevitt. There are descendants of John Tennally, the tavern keeper who founded Tenleytown. There are dozens of Civil War veterans there, along with numerous graves of freed blacks, including family members of Anne Marie Becraft, an African-American nun who started a school for black girls on Dumbarton Street in Georgetown. All around are the tombstones of many who arrived in the early waves of European immigration—from Ireland, Germany, Italy and other countries.


Something Rare

Yet many Holy Trinity parishioners had no notion of the historical connection between their church and the increasingly dilapidated cemetery on a Glover Park slope. Grace Bateman was among them. “Most of us had no idea,” she said. “There was no sign there, and it was never talked about in the parish.”

But once they learned of their church’s past ties to Holy Rood, Bateman and a group of other parishioners began, in 2010, to explore how they could revive those ties. “Most urban parishes don’t have cemeteries,” said Bateman. “It’s a wonderful asset.” Negotiations among Holy Trinity, the archdiocese, and Georgetown University were complicated, and there were plenty of stops and starts.

Finally, last October, an agreement was signed. A key component was the establishment of the endowment from the sale of the memorial niches. It will be used to ensure that the cemetery is well maintained. Between the columbarium wall and the crypt, a total of 645 niches will be available. The niches are available to everyone; as of last month, more than 170 had already been sold.

The new structures will be officially dedicated on November 2—All Souls Day. “I like to say we’re resurrecting our cemetery,” said Holy Trinity Pastor Kevin Gillespie. “It’s a way for families here to be connected to those who went before us, in a spiritual way. That’s why I say it’s a resurrection.”

After its facelift, Holy Rood will remain accessible to neighborhood residents, even for watching fireworks on the Fourth of July, Bateman noted. “We have no problem with that, as long as you’re respectful of the surroundings,” she said. “Cemeteries have long been gathering places.”






Renovations to the Neglected Holy Rood Cemetery Underway

Hansen Lian, The Hoya

November 1, 2019


Holy Rood Cemetery, which was one of the nation’s largest burial places for enslaved black people, is undergoing extensive renovations to restore its historic grounds.

The cemetery, which has the graves of over 1,000 freed and enslaved African Americans, expects to finish renovations by early 2020.

Georgetown University and Holy Trinity Catholic Church have partnered to oversee the restorations at Holy Rood announced in November 2018. The first stage of initial renovations is set to be completed in early 2020 with more work to come later in the year.

Holy Rood, located on Wisconsin Avenue, was established in 1832 by Holy Trinity Catholic Church. The people buried at the 186-year-old cemetery include up to 1,000 freed and enslaved black people, Revolutionary War veterans, priests and members of the Georgetown community.

Georgetown has managed the maintenance of Holy Rood since 1942. The university has drawn criticism from neighbors, students and other community members for its management of Holy Rood. The cemetery has fallen into disrepair since at least 2009, marred by vandalism, litter and decay, according to The Georgetown Metropolitan.

In 2018, Georgetown and Holy Trinity announced extensive plans to restore the cemetery, including plans for a 645-niche columbarium, a building used to display funeral urns, and the establishment of a Perpetual Care Endowment to fund future maintenance projects.

Construction on a new columbarium is already complete. Sales of niches for funeral urns in the columbarium will help sustain maintenance going forward, according to university spokesperson Ruth McBain.

“A portion of the proceeds from columbarium niche sales helps fund a Perpetual Care Endowment for the cemetery,” McBain wrote in an email to The Hoya.

Georgetown and Holy Trinity are financially committed to improving and maintaining Holy Rood in the future, according to Grace Bateman, a leader of the restoration effort and Holy Trinity parishioner. Georgetown agreed to fund up to $500,000 in deferred maintenance at Holy Rood, and Holy Trinity agreed to fund up to $250,000 in landscaping and other improvements, according to Bateman.

“All of these investments, plus, income from the Perpetual Care Endowment that has been established, will insure that the work now underway at Holy Rood won’t be a ‘one-time fix,’” Bateman wrote in an email to The Hoya.

The university’s faltering maintenance of the cemetery has been met with reproval for decades. In 1984, then University President Timothy Healy, S.J., proposed that Georgetown remove the graves and develop the property for different purposes in the future. Healy faced accusations of disrespecting the dead and dropped the idea, according to The Washington Post.

The university has made consistent efforts, however, to improve Holy Rood, according to McBain.

“In 2002, the University rebuilt the stone retaining wall. In 2010, Georgetown and Holy Trinity Church began a joint effort to restore and improve the cemetery grounds,” McBain wrote. “Since the work began, Georgetown has erected a gate and plaque, and the Holy Trinity Church’s work includes the installation of ornamental iron fencing and enhancing the entrance hardscape and landscaping.”

Although Georgetown and Holy Trinity could have done more to maintain the cemetery, both institutions have played a critical role in its upkeep since its founding, according to Bateman.

“Holy Trinity’s funds for maintaining the cemetery became scarce, especially during the hardship of the Depression. Fortunately, Georgetown University, which still held title to the cemetery, stepped in to provide basic maintenance,” Bateman wrote. “Both Holy Trinity and the University could have done a better job maintaining the Holy Rood during past times, but the partnership between the two institutions actually saved the cemetery from further decay.”

The restoration’s success is evidence that, despite Holy Rood’s complicated history, Holy Trinity and Georgetown are working in the cemetery’s best interests, according to Bateman.

“The fruits of the long-standing partnership between Holy Trinity Catholic Church and Georgetown University are already evident at Holy Rood Cemetery,” Bateman wrote. “Not only the improvements to the physical environment that are beginning to emerge, but reconnecting current and future parishioners and members of the University community with this beautiful and sacred space.”

The renovations are a welcome sight after years of disrepair, according to Carlton Fletcher, who has been a Glover Park resident for over 45 years.

“I was delighted to hear of Georgetown University and Holy Trinity’s project, and I look forward to seeing it come to fruition,” Fletcher wrote in an email to The Hoya. “I think that I am like many others who have passed Holy Rood over the years and wondered why it appeared to be in such a sorry state.”





In Glover Park, an old Catholic cemetery gets new life.

John Kelly, Washington Post,

December 2, 2020



“I was never particularly interested in cemeteries,” Grace Bateman said as we stood amid the gravestones of Holy Rood, a burial ground that sits on the cusp of Georgetown and Glover Park.

I, on the other hand, have always been particularly interested in cemeteries, but this was one I’d never visited before. Frankly it never looked that inviting. For years I’d driven this stretch of Northwest Washington and seen a twisted chain-link gate and what looked like the ground tumbling onto Wisconsin Avenue.

“A lot of the tombstones were toppled and broken,” said Grace, describing the former state of the cemetery. The landscaping was once patchy, bare in some places, overgrown in others.

Not anymore. Holy Rood Cemetery — the final resting place for 7,000 people — has been reborn.

That’s thanks to a unique agreement between several parties and the injection of something that even the dead seem to need: money.

Holy Rood was founded in 1832 as the burial ground for parishioners of Holy Trinity, a Catholic church 11 blocks to the south. In an odd arrangement, ownership of the 6½ -acre cemetery eventually passed to Georgetown University.

It’s hard enough running a university without also having to run a cemetery, especially one sorely lacking in funds. The last plot for Holy Rood — “rood” means “cross” in Scottish — was sold in 1915. The last interment was in the 1980s. With no fresh cash coming in, the graveyard had become a dilapidated embarrassment.

When a cemetery runs out of space for more bodies, you can do one of two things: Make the cemetery bigger or make the bodies smaller. It’s only been in recent years that the Vatican has relaxed its opposition to cremation. Grace, a lawyer, and fellow Holy Trinity parishioner Jack Brady, an architect, proposed building a columbarium at Holy Rood.

After some initial resistance, the university agreed, granting an easement for its construction.

“To be honest, the breakthrough was a couple of years ago, when the Georgetown slavery report came out,” the Rev. C. Kevin Gillespie, Holy Trinity’s pastor, told me when I phoned him.

That was the exploration of the university’s ownership of enslaved people and the sale of nearly 300 African Americans in 1838. Buried at Holy Rood are the remains of both free and enslaved Black people, among them some family members of Anne Marie Becraft, an educator and one of America’s first African American nuns.

The renovation of Holy Rood was completed in the fall of 2019. A new black wrought iron fence faces Wisconsin Avenue. There’s a new gate, too. Signage recounts the cemetery’s history. Gravestones have been set upright, trees planted, benches installed.

A semicircular columbarium was built in a natural amphitheater. It faces what had been a holding crypt, where caskets were stored temporarily during the winter when the frozen ground was too hard to turn over.

The restored stone crypt and the new columbarium have 645 niches. You needn’t be a member of the parish — or even Catholic — to buy one. Prices start at $9,000.

Said Gillespie: “We kid people: ‘Look, you want Georgetown property for life? Here’s your deal.’ ”

There has been an unexpected side benefit to the cemetery’s rebirth. When the coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of indoor religious services, it became the setting for socially distanced outdoor Mass. Holy Trinity even had a First Communion ceremony there, with masked children dressed up in their Sunday finest amid the tombstones.

A semicircular columbarium was built in a natural amphitheater. It faces what had been a holding crypt, where caskets were stored temporarily during the winter when the frozen ground was too hard to turn over.

The restored stone crypt and the new columbarium have 645 niches. You needn’t be a member of the parish — or even Catholic — to buy one. Prices start at $9,000.

Said Gillespie: “We kid people: ‘Look, you want Georgetown property for life? Here’s your deal.’ ”

There has been an unexpected side benefit to the cemetery’s rebirth. When the coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of indoor religious services, it became the setting for socially distanced outdoor Mass. Holy Trinity even had a First Communion ceremony there, with masked children dressed up in their Sunday finest amid the tombstones.

Among the people buried at Holy Rood are Joseph Nevitt, a veteran of the Revolutionary War. Thomas Henry French is there, too. He was a U.S. cavalry officer who, as part of Maj. Marcus A. Reno’s forces, engaged the Sioux four miles east of Little Big Horn, where Gen. George Armstrong Custer fought. French survived, Custer did not.

I asked Gillespie what it means that Holy Rood Cemetery has been resurrected.

“For parishioners, when their time comes, they’ll know they’re still a part of the faith community of Holy Trinity,” he said. “It gives some consolation. And for people who are not parishioners — who aren’t even Catholic — they’ll know they’re being prayed for. That gives them a sense of connectedness, both in this life and the next.”

As dogs and their owners rambled through the graveyard, Grace and I walked up the slope behind the crypt and looked to the east. It was raw and blustery but in the distance we could see the dome of the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument. When all the leaves are off the trees, Grace said, you can glimpse a sliver of the Potomac.

“I love this view,” she said. “I think a cemetery should be a place for the living.”