Holy Rood Cemetery

The first burial ground of Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown was immediately adjoining the original church. The second was the College Ground, on the campus of Georgetown College. The third was the Trinity Church Upper Grave Yard, now known as Holy Rood Cemetery. Of these, only Holy Rood survives.

(This history was originally titled “Burial Grounds of Holy Trinity Church, Georgetown, D.C.”, and appeared in the Newsletter of the Catholic Historical Society of Washington in 2002.)




The Churchyard

According to tradition, when the site of Holy Trinity Church was purchased in 1787, it was next to a “small but neat graveyard, the resting place of the first Catholic settlers”.[i] How many graves had accumulated in the thirty-six years since Georgetown’s founding is not known, but it seems clear that the demand for burial in consecrated ground anticipated organization of the parish. That this graveyard was west of the original church––under what is now the Elementary School and the present church––may be judged by subsequent land purchases, the immediate purpose of which appears to have been to consolidate the church and the neighboring graves.[ii]

The churchyard that was thus created served Holy Trinity Parish as its only burial ground for thirty years. As no death records have come down to us from those years the total of burials in the churchyard can at best be estimated, but if the number of deaths in the first three decades of the parish were thirty a year––just half the rate recorded in the fourth decade, to err on the safe side––the number, not including those buried before 1787, would be nine hundred.[iii] By 1945 there was only evidence for two of these graves.

Two of the tombstones at the church can be seen near the sacristy wall, though they are not in their original location. The one next to the North wall is that of Mary, wife of Notley Young, Esq., a sister of Archbishop Carroll, who died January 10, 1815, aged 72; the other, next to the east wall, is that of Mary, wife of Augustus Taney, brother of Chief Justice Taney, who died August 16, 1817, and with her was buried her infant son, Roger Brooke Taney. It is said that these tombstones once were set in the wall of the church.[iv] These stones, together with two other fragments that recently turned up, are now at the front of the new St. Ignatius Chapel.

Anyone who inquires at Holy Trinity about the remainder of the graves in the churchyard is likely to be told that they were removed at some time in the past. No doubt some were; it is not unusual for people to move the remains of their more prestigious ancestors to a better address, if they have the means to do so. But as there are so many people in the ground without descendants that could afford the expense of moving graves, common sense suggests that most people’s remains have stayed where they always were. The historian of Holy Trinity does relate that many graves were moved in 1817, but he also reminds us that bodies were still to be found in the churchyard a century later.[v]

Holy Trinity undertook construction of new parish facilities in its churchyard in 1998. Although the press was informed that the cemetery had been moved long ago, contractors were advised to watch for bones as they dug. It was not long before evidence of the churchyard’s prior use came to light. The only account given to the press characterized the find as a skull and some small bone fragments, but in the end the remains of forty-four men, women and children were turned over to the DeVol Funeral home.

As required by law, forensic anthropologists surveyed the site, and examined each set of remains. Analysis of buttons suggested that two individuals had been buried between 1837 and 1865. At least one man was of African descent. Some remains showed signs that they had been disturbed once before, during an earlier extension of the church. As each day of interrupted work cost ten thousand dollars, there was understandable pressure to conclude the investigation, so graves that were discovered to be lower than the basement of the new building––not to mention graves beyond the perimeter of the excavation––were left where they were.[vi]



The College Ground

The second burial ground of Holy Trinity Church was located a few blocks north and west of the church, at the western terminus of Third (P) Street, near the southwestern corner of the grounds of Visitation Convent. Although sometimes called Trinity Burial Ground, or the Old Burying Ground, it was best known as the College Ground.[vii]

Although Holy Trinity’s records of baptisms and marriages go back to 1795, the oldest death register begins on December 8, 1818, which appears to be the date of the first burial in the College Ground. While tombstones dated 1762 and 1764 were still to be seen there as late as 1945, Father Kelly explained that these stood over remains that had been brought to the College Ground from other places.

The most revered grave in the College Ground was that of Susan Decatur, the widow of naval hero Stephen Decatur. A few years after her husband’s death she converted to Catholicism, and, at a moment when Georgetown College was in great need, advanced the equivalent of three million dollars.[viii] Her house stood about where White-Gravenor Hall is now, and when she died, she was laid to rest in the Fenwick family lot, just steps from where she had lived.[ix]

Although Decatur is the only famous name associated with the College Ground, the death register of Holy Trinity does contain one or two other items of interest.

Carbery, Henry, who died on the 25th inst. (May 27, 1822).

Mrs. Sybilla Carbery, who died on the 3d instant suddenly was buried in the college ground near her husband. (April 6, 1840)

Captain Carbery served in the Revolutionary War, at the end of which he led his men in a march on the capital––Philadelphia, at the time––to demand their back pay. Congress felt threatened, and Carbery was accused of treason. The incident is said to have influenced the determination that the permanent national capital be governed by Congress. Exonerated, Carbery married Sybilla Schneitzel of Frederick, and lived out his days at Cincinnati, his farm on Foxhall Road.[x]

One entry informs us, in passing, that the College Ground had a chapel:

Don Francisco Pizarro Martinez, Envoy Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Minister of the Mexican Republic was buried on the 12th instant on the left side behind the Chapel of St. Francis Xaverius on the college-ground. (February 7, 1840)

Of course, the vast majority of burials in the College Ground would have been ordinary people. Besides English Catholics, and their Maryland and Virginia descendants, Irish surnames, and to a lesser extent, German surnames, are very common in the Death Register, and the College Ground even had an epitaph in Welsh.[xi] That Georgetown had a considerable free black population is also reflected in the Death Register.


______ Barker, a Colored Man of Geo:town (July 23, 1819)

Mary C. Gray a Col. Person, who died the 27. Inst. (July 28, 1819)

Catherine Dotson, a free woman, who died the 18th inst. (July 9, 1824)

Elizabeth, age 6, col’d, daughter of Robert Parker and Lucinda Sewall, was buried in Mr. Threlkeld’s lot, in the Catholic cemetery. (September 7, 1834)

(This last entry is curious. Why would John Threlkeld, a Protestant, have a lot in a Catholic burial ground? The answer seems to be that some of his slaves––as well as free blacks with whom he had connections––were Catholic.[xii])



That slaves were buried in the College Ground is amply confirmed by the record, and it is worth noting that some appear to have been the property of institutions rather than of individuals.

Peter, a Servt. Boy of Mrs. Weaver, who died the 21st inst. (January 22, 1821)

Teresa, a servt. woman of Mrs. Spalding (January 31, 1821)

Rachel, a Col’d Woman of the College Wash House (October 22, 1821)

Ruth, a Col’d Woman of the Visitation (January 24, 1823)

_____ a child from the people belonging to the Monastery (February 20, 1825)

Charles – black – servant of the College (January 3, 1832)

Mary (Col’d), age 6, daughter of John Lee, a free (Col’d) man, and of Mary, a slave to Mr. Newton, was buried in the College Ground, paid. (January 5, 1835)

George – black – servt. of Miss Jane Sewall – chol. (August 29, 1832)

Clare – black – servt. of Mr. Jos. Semmes – chol. (September 4, 1832)



Recent History of the College Ground


Holy Trinity Church was “born in the shadow and of the substance of Georgetown College”, and the land it was built on had been the property of Georgetown since the days of its founding. The situation was somewhat complicated by the fact that the church and its buildings had been built by the contributions of its parishioners, and that Father Neale’s 1796 purchase of land had apparently been in his own name. The matter was resolved in 1942, when title to Holy Trinity was transferred to the Archdiocese of Baltimore and Washington.[xiii] While the graves in the churchyard “conveyed” to the Archdiocese, the outlying burial grounds of Holy Trinity Church did not, and have been in the care of Georgetown University since that time.

In 1953 Georgetown removed the College Ground to make way for future expansion, and its graves were transferred to Mount Olivet Cemetery. The loss of the oldest Catholic parish cemetery in Washington does not seem to have occasioned comment, perhaps because the number of graves involved did not sound large. The public was given to understand that parish records listed exactly one hundred and eighty-nine persons buried in the old cemetery.[xiv]

How this number was arrived at is anybody’s guess. It may have reflected what could still be seen of the College Ground––such as the number of tombstones that still stood upright––but not the underlying reality. Only in a military cemetery is the ratio of graves to gravestones one to one. In a parish cemetery, by contrast, more than one person may be buried under one stone, and some people never get a stone at all.[xv] Many would only have had wooden markers, which are not durable. So, over time, the graves of the poor, and of slaves––two classes of society that were once quite numerous in Georgetown––would have become invisible to posterity.

The College Ground came into use because the Holy Trinity churchyard had reached its limit, and was the only parish cemetery available between 1818 and 1833. According to the death register of Holy Trinity, about nine hundred parishioners died in those years, and, as burials in the College Ground continued for decades after that, the total is likely to be nearer to a thousand.[xvi] The transfer of remains from the College Ground to Mount Olivet Cemetery, on the other hand, consisted of only “fifty bodies, more or less”.[xvii] The unavoidable conclusion is that ninety-five percent of the people buried in the College Ground were left there. Searching for them at this late date is probably a lost cause: depending on where fill might have been needed when the Reiss Science Building, and later, the Intercultural Center were built, they could be anywhere.



Holy Rood Cemetery

In 1832, land for a third Catholic burial ground was purchased on Back Street––Tunlaw Road––in the sparsely-populated northern extension of Georgetown. This new burial ground was augmented in 1853 by purchase of adjacent land, and a house for the sexton or gravedigger was built near the entrance.[xviii] A more convenient entrance on High Street––Wisconsin Avenue––became possible after the burial ground was enlarged yet again. In the years immediately after the Civil War a new house for the sexton, a vault, a new gate and stone retaining wall along High Street were completed, and what had been called simply the Upper Grave Yard was given the name by which it has been known since then: Holy Rood.[xix]

Most of these enlargements and improvements were ascribed to one man’s generosity: “The benefactions of W.W. Corcoran are known to all men. The public are not generally aware, however, that besides giving Oak Hill Cemetery for a final resting place, he bestowed the greater part of the Catholic burial ground on the Heights for the purpose to which it has so long been devoted.”[xx]

Today Holy Rood encompasses six and a half acres. In 1984 the number of gravestones was reckoned at 2,550, and 7,312 known burials in identifiable and recorded plots, plus an unknown number of pauper burials in a half acre set aside for that purpose, from which any markers that once existed have since disappeared.[xxi]



Who Is Buried In Holy Rood?

A few names in Holy Rood are well-known. There are descendants of John Tennally––the tavern keeper who founded Tenleytown––and descendants of Nathan Loughborough and Uriah Forrest, two prominent early residents of that neighborhood. (The descendants of Nathan Loughborough were later transferred to Oak Hill Cemetery.) Ann Green of Rosedale, the daughter of General Forrest, and founder of St. Ann’s Church in Tenleytown, is buried here.[xxii] Those familiar with early records may recognize other names––Cloud, Custard, Duvall, Dyer, Harry, Homiller, Kengla, Kuhns, Marshall, Riffle, Wetzel––from the period when Georgetown Heights and Tenleytown were settled.

In Holy Rood, names associated with the first wave of European immigrants to Maryland––Belt, Caperton, Clements, Dorsey, Magruder, Mattingly, Mosher, Ritchie, Semmes, Tayloe, Queen––are joined by those of subsequent arrivals––Everard, Perna, Piperno, Ricciardi, Scala, Cassel, Dreisch, Ehrmantraut, Harbaugh, Hein, Heiss, Holtzman, Kleindienst, Krouse, Ludecke, Ruppel, Stahl, Stohlman, Vogt. The Irish surnames are too numerous to list, including many of the first generation––“a citizen of Georgetown, D.C., but a native of Ireland”––and Holy Rood is fragrant with the names of the distant parishes where they were born: Ballinchalla, Bally McKelliget, Ballymore, Bannow, Billis, Kenlemough, Knigh, and Moycullen, in Armagh, Cavan, Clare, Galway, Kerry, Louth, Meath, Roscommon, Sligo, Tipperary, and Tyrone.

Death records are a sobering reminder of the high mortality of mothers in childbirth, of infants, and of children. There is also plentiful evidence of poverty: roughly a quarter of the burials in the Death Registers of Holy Trinity are marked gratis or Free Range, i.e. at the expense of the parish. Rich and poor are buried in Holy Rood, but they are not buried alike. The monuments of the well-to-do are large, and lasting, while the tombstones of the poor are small, and vulnerable. The humblest parishioners of Holy Trinity may have had only wooden crosses, which are now long gone. No marker can be found for Jane Parks, age one, the first person buried in the Upper Grave Yard, on April 20th, 1833. Only the record proves that she is there.

With the exception of Stephen Cassin––a naval hero of the War of 1812, originally buried in Holy Rood, but now in Arlington Cemetery––the veterans of Holy Rood are not well-known. Quite often their epitaph does not mention their service. But for pension records, who would know that under the battered stone inscribed J. Nevitt, Died Oct. 25, 1834, aged 85, lies a Minuteman in the American Revolution? As it happens, Joseph Nevitt’s grave in Holy Rood Cemetery is the only original identified grave of a Revolutionary War veteran in Georgetown.[xxiii]

There are veterans of other wars as well. Conrad Schwartz and Daniel Scheele were District militiamen during the British invasion of 1814.[xxiv] Joseph Sampson––“a native of the City of Paris, France, now about 37 yrs. of age, being late a soldier in the service of the U.S.”––wrote his will in 1851, while lying ill at the Georgetown almshouse with a pulmonary ailment contracted in the Florida War, 1840-1.[xxv] Patrick C. Meer of Ohio served in the Mexican War, and saw service again in the Union army.[xxvi] A tombstone records how long it took another Union soldier to die.


Peter Kelley, Co. A, 2nd U.S. Infy., born in Kings County, Ireland, died September 22, 1862 from wounds received at the battle of Bull Run, Va. August 29, 1862, Aged 42 years. Erected by his dear wife, Mary Kelley.[xxvii]


For whatever light it may shed on Catholic Georgetown, if there is a Confederate soldier in Holy Rood, he is severely outnumbered. Forty Union veterans were counted there in 1891, and as there were many still alive at the time, that number can only have grown.[xxviii]

In 1861 Capt. Charles H. Rodier raised a company of Georgetowners to join in the defense of the capital. Near Chain Bridge the Anderson Rifles––named in honor of the hero of Fort Sumter––took the first rebel prisoners of the war. Rodier died the following year, after being shot in leg accidentally, at age forty-three. His widow apparently could not afford a tombstone.[xxix]

Thomas Henry French started the war as First Sergeant of the Tenallytown Rifles, rose to the rank of Captain in the 10th U.S. Infantry, and was wounded at Petersburg. After the war, French joined the 7th Cavalry, and in the day of fighting on the Little Bighorn, he and his men engaged the Indians four miles east of Custer. French saw action again in the Nez Perces War, took to drink, and died at Leavenworth, at age thirty-nine. His remains were brought home by his Tenleytown relations from the French, Burke, Harry and Marshall families, who are buried beside him.[xxx]

For a half century after Appomattox, the Georgetown post of the Grand Army of the Republic turned out on Memorial Day, and paraded to the cemetery. Pastors of Holy Trinity––some, like Fathers Brennan and McAtee, Union veterans themselves––offered prayers. School children brought baskets of flowers, the cadets of Western High School presented a salute, and the Gettysburg Address was recited. The choir of Trinity Sunday School sang, or a quartet from the Georgetown University Glee Club. At the close of the exercises the soldiers’ graves were decorated with flags and flowers, and “Taps” floated out on the morning air.[xxxi]

Although it is quite possible that black veterans of the Civil War might also lie buried in Holy Rood, this remains to be investigated, perhaps by a comparison of the index of United States Colored Troops at the National Archives with the index of Holy Rood burials at Georgetown University. Today only fourteen Union veterans can be identified––all white––but in 1891, forty Union veterans were counted at Holy Rood. If some of the missing twenty-six were black, the person conducting the 1891 count would certainly have known of them, as he was a black Civil War veteran himself.[xxxii]

The loss, over time, of impermanent grave-markers––as well as surnames shared with white Catholics––may explain why the presence of African Americans is not more readily apparent to the visitor in Holy Rood. Nor are the records all they could be in this regard; whether the race of the deceased parishioner was noted depended entirely on the inclination of the priest who made the entry. Because of this uncertainty, the index of burials prepared by Georgetown University in 1989 was able to distinguish only five hundred “colored” persons in the record. Extrapolation from years for which reliable statistics are available suggests that the number is probably twice that. [xxxiii]

Holy Rood contains the graves of its first grave digger, a free black man named Siah (or Josias) Smith, and of his wife Lucinda, who both died within months of each other in 1834. Lidia Butler, who died that year, was a mainstay of black Holy Trinity. Her name appears thirty-eight times as the godmother at baptisms of children, both free and slave.[xxxiv]

Antebellum Georgetown’s free blacks, descendants of Catholic slaves from Maryland, are represented in Holy Rood Cemetery by the Barker, Becraft, Belt, Butler, Chandler, Coquire, Dodson, Dorsey, Dover, Hawkins, Henson, Jackson, Lee, Ridgely, Queen, Shorter, Smackum, and Thomas families, among others. The graves of their descendants are in sections 18-19, 21-22, 25-26, and 36, in the north-central part of Holy Rood.[xxxv]

The most prominent, albeit badly damaged, monument in this section is that of Henrietta Steptoe (1769-1850), who lived on N Street, opposite Holy Trinity. Although the consensus of sources is that she was “colored”, this seems to have been by virtue of association rather than descent. Steptoe’s daughter was born in England––which means she and her mother probably were white––but married Andrew Barker, a well-known black citizen of Georgetown. Whatever the case, Henrietta Steptoe, a midwife, was someone of standing in both communities, and her obituary appeared in the leading Washington newspaper.[xxxvi]

In families formed by the marriage of slaves and free persons, the condition of the child was determined by that of its mother. The following children were therefore born free:[xxxvii]

Stephen (Col’d), age 17, son of John Smith, a slave to Mr. John Pickrell, and of Hellen, a free woman,

free range for col’d people in the Up. Graveyard

(August 15, 1835)


Betty Gerry (col’d), age 2, daughter of Edward Gerry, a slave to Mrs. Brook, and of Rachel Wilson (free)

Trinity Church Upper Grave Yard half pay range

(February 15, 1838)


Lucinda (col’d), age 6, daughter of John Thompson and Catherine Chandler (the husband, a slave, the mother, free) who died in the city, having been burnt up

free-range of the upper-graveyard

(November 26, 1836)


Not all entries are this clear. In cases where a free black person was well-known as such, the priests of Holy Trinity sometimes omitted stating what was obvious. There were also periods when deaths were recorded without noting whether the deceased had been a slave. Nonetheless, at least thirty-six slave burials can readily be distinguished in Holy Rood during the first seven years the cemetery was in use, which makes it possible to estimate a figure for the remaining years of slavery. Assuming that the rate stayed constant, the number of slaves buried at Holy Rood might well exceed one hundred.

The grave markers of slaves were probably wooden, and have not survived; the archives of Holy Trinity church are therefore their only monument. As documents that furnish the surnames of slaves, and reveal their family connections, are quite rare, these records are of great potential value to historians of slavery and to African American genealogists.


Some typical entries:


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

full pay ground, T.C.U.G.Y.

[Trinity Church Upper Grave Yard]

(August 7, 1834)


Thomas Francis Johnson, age 2 (Col’d), son of Lewis Johnson, a slave to Mrs. Hellen Fenwick, and of Maria Johnson, his wife, a slave to Miss Polly Hughes

free range, T.C.U.G.Y.

(April 13, 1836)


Charity Boarman, age 65, a slave to Miss Jane Moss T.C.U.G.Y. 1/2 pay range

(September 19, 1838)


On the basis of these records it seems safe to say that Holy Rood Cemetery is the best-documented burial ground of slaves in the District of Columbia.[xxxviii]



Recent History of Holy Rood

Because of its role in the founding of Holy Trinity Church, Georgetown University held title to most of the parish property. The maintenance of the burial grounds, however, was the responsibility of Holy Trinity, which defrayed the cost by the sale of burial plots. When the last plot was sold in 1915, Holy Rood became a financial liability, and began to reflect this in its condition, as had happened to the College Ground, many years before. Dissatisfied lot-holders were encouraged to form an association to raise funds for the care of Holy Rood. The Depression was taking hold, and money was scarce.[xxxix]

Negotiations for the transfer of the parish from the University to the Archdiocese were already under way. Although the primary purpose was to eliminate the anomaly of a parish subordinated to a university, the transaction would also relieve Holy Trinity of its unprofitable burial grounds. Georgetown certainly had no reason to part with the College Ground, which was part of the campus, all but forgotten by the public, and being a ruin, required no expenditure. But Holy Rood, at some distance from the campus, and with people clamoring about its condition, was another matter. President Nevils therefore wrote to Archbishop Curley, reminding him of the intimate connection between the parish and its cemetery, and affirming Georgetown’s readiness to relinquish Holy Rood for the sake of that connection.[xl]

The Archbishop saw the matter differently, and counseled Georgetown to take the longer view. “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.” Curley concluded by explaining why acquiring an old cemetery was not in his interest:  “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.”[xli]

Holy Rood has been in the care of Georgetown University ever since. As the custodial role is seen as foreign to Georgetown’s larger mission––“Frankly, cemeteries are not the university’s business”––its sense of obligation to Holy Rood is correspondingly slight: the policy, in the words of a recent president, is one of “minimal upkeep”.[xlii] Such care as Holy Rood may get serves as a fig leaf for neglect, and comes at a price. The grass grows fast in the summer, and the lawn crew, hard-pressed to keep up, mows in haste: every stone in Holy Rood has the scars to prove it. The enclosures that once surrounded family plots, and no doubt made it harder to mow the grass, have been disposed of. When weed-trees are cut and hauled away, the trucks crush fallen tombstones under their wheels. There is no caretaker, his house was torn down long ago, and the campus police don’t include Holy Rood in their rounds. By day, dog-owners feel entitled to let their dogs off the leash, and by night, vandals have a free hand to go about their business.

Visitors who conclude from the evidence that its proprietor does not value Holy Rood could be forgiven for doing so, but that is not actually the case; for the University, the question in the last thirty years has been, how long before that value could be realized. In 1933 Archbishop Curley had suggested that a hundred years might be a decent interval before finding a use for Holy Rood; by 1972 this had already come to seem too long to wait. Steps began to be taken to bring the goal nearer.

Of course, for the cemetery to be of any use to the University, it would first have to be disencumbered of its dead, and for that to happen, an Archdiocesan cemetery would have to be willing to take them. Although this might seem to have been a tall order, the results of initial discussions with the Archdiocese were encouraging. The reason is readily understood: the price for accepting between one and six thousand remains at Mount Olivet Cemetery might run as high as two million dollars, of which eighty percent would be profit.[xliii]

In return for accommodating Georgetown, the Archdiocese asked to be indemnified and saved harmless from any claim arising out of the disinterment and reburial. “The diocese does not want to become involved in a controversy which is not rightfully ours.” Although the attorneys of the Archdiocese approved the agreement, there was no further progress, and the passage of time––nine years––afforded more than sufficient time for legal concerns to accumulate. When Georgetown University was finally ready to go forward, the Archdiocese said no.[xliv]

Despite this serious blow, the University pressed on. A letter from Charles Meng, Vice President for Administration and Facilities, notified the remaining one hundred and nine holders of burial rights that the cemetery would be closed to further burials. It did not mention that this step was the indispensable preliminary to the removal of graves.[xlv]

Identification of persons with remaining legal rights entailed careful scrutiny of Holy Rood records, in the course of which the little-known fact appears to have come to Georgetown’s attention that slaves had been buried there, particularly in the section of the cemetery used for pauper burials. To remove them was sure to be offensive to the descendants of slaves. This sensitive matter was not aired in public, but privately the President of Georgetown University indicated a desire to develop an “impressive” memorial to these slaves. As it was contingent on receiving permission to remove all other graves, nothing came of this laudable idea.[xlvi]

In responding to the many complaints and pleas to intercede that it received from its constituents, the Archdiocese could only explain that Holy Rood did not belong to them. The man who discovered that Archdiocesan masses for the dead did not include the cemetery where his parents and grandparents were buried, was reassured that the Archdiocese was certain that his family were remembered in whatever masses might be sponsored by the administration of Holy Rood. 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.[xlvii]

Although the cemetery belonged to Georgetown University, it was clear from the letters Archbishop Hickey received that the public would not separate Holy Rood’s closing from the Archdiocese. Hickey found it necessary to remind President Healy that the Archdiocese had never granted 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.”[xlviii]

The aggrieved holders of burial rights in Holy Rood went further, and took the University to court. The restraining order they obtained in 1984 has obliged Georgetown to keep the cemetery open ever since, and to honor all remaining contracts, until the last lot-holder dies. (It is by virtue of the periodic funerals of the steadily dwindling number of plaintiffs that Holy Rood is the oldest active Catholic parish cemetery in Washington.)[xlix]

Despite its impasse with the Archdiocese, Georgetown remained adamant: “The University takes the position that someday, somehow the University must be allowed to convert this property from cemetery property to some other use.” Commercial development of Holy Rood may have suffered a setback, but as far as Georgetown was concerned, it remained an option.[l]

Meanwhile, there was time to remove lesser impediments. It will be recalled that Susan Decatur had been buried in the College Ground. When that cemetery was removed in 1953, her remains, and her monument, were not consigned to oblivion with the rest, but moved to Holy Rood.[li] This more seemly disposition of the famous widow, convert to Catholicism, and benefactor of Georgetown University was apparently satisfactory for the next three decades, but appears to have been regretted in 1984, when it became necessary to foresee and deal with the various potential repercussions of removing Holy Rood.

The solution took several years to work out: in 1988, Susan Decatur was removed from Holy Rood and buried at the foot of the tomb of her husband, in St. Peter’s Episcopal Cemetery, Philadelphia. The Georgetown official who had led the drive to close Holy Rood was in attendance to express his satisfaction at having brought about this reunion, and to inform the Philadelphia Inquirer––the Washington Post was not notified of the good deed––that Susan Decatur’s previous residence had been neither “notable nor beautiful”.[lii]

The sentiment is revealing; when even the man charged with its care has nothing good to say about it, then the future of Holy Rood must be considered bleak. But the sentiment is also mistaken; its beauty may have suffered, but the oldest Catholic parish burial ground in Washington is surely notable, and deserves a better fate.


(Carlton Fletcher, “Burial Grounds of Holy Trinity Church, Georgetown, D.C.”, Newsletter of the Catholic Historical Society of Washington, Vol.X, No. 3, July-September, 2002)





[i]. Laurence J. Kelly, S.J., The History of Holy Trinity Parish, Washington D.C. 1795-1945 (Baltimore: John D. Lucas Printing Company, 1945), 17; William W. Warner, At Peace With All Their Neighbors: Catholics and Catholicism in the National Capital 1787-1960 (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1994), Chapter 1, n. 1.

[ii]. Holy Trinity was built on Lot 72 of Threlkeld’s Addition to Georgetown. In 1796 Father Neale augmented Bishop Carroll’s purchase, adding land west and north of the church: see John Threlkeld et ux Elizabeth to Francis Neale, DC Liber B2, f.502, made June 15, 1796, received June 17, 1796, Recorder of Deeds. Although Father Kelly thought the additions were on both sides of the church, plat maps show that they consisted of 20 feet on the west of the church, and 60 feet on the north; but Kelly does say that ground west of the church to 36th Street was bought in 1798. Kelly, Holy Trinity, 17, 78.

[iii]. Deaths, Holy Trinity Church – Beginning 8th of December 1818, Holy Trinity Church Archives, Special Collections Division, Georgetown University Library.

[iv]. Kelly, Holy Trinity, 18-19; 112-113.

[v]. ibid., 112.

[vi]. “Bones Found In Former Georgetown Cemetery”, Washington Post (October 22, 1998). There was no mention of graves when the project was completed: “Hilltop Sanctuary”, Washington Post (December 25, 1999). Douglas W. Ousley, Malcolm Richardson, Rebecca R. Kardash, Excavations At An Abandoned Cemetery: Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Georgetown, Washington DC. (March, 1999), a report to the Historic Preservation Division, District of Columbia, 2, 4, 7-8, 30-1

[vii]. Father Kelly says the burial ground was “west of the College”, but Boschke’s Topographical Map of the District of Columbia is more precise.

[viii]. “Cemetery Yields Forgotten Graves at Georgetown U.“, Washington Star (January 24, 1931); “Old Graveyard Unearthed at Dormitory Site”, Washington Herald (January 25, 1931); “Heraldings of Old-Time Washington”, Washington Herald (March 2, 1931); Warner, At Peace, 199; Address of Charles Meng, Vice President for Administration, Georgetown University, on the occasion of the internment [sic] of Susan Wheeler Decatur at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Memorial Day, May 30,1988, GUA (Georgetown University Archives).

[ix]. Deaths, 106, reads July, 1860, but gives no day.

[x]. Journal of the Columbia Historical Society, 19:65. Warner, At Peace, 199, speaks of three Catholic Carberys who married Protestants. Henry would make it four.

[xi]. Grave Stone Transcriptions, 1946, vertical file on cemeteries, Historical Society of Washington.

[xii]. Threlkeld need not have purchased it; as the seller of the the entire property he may have been accorded the lot as a courtesy. Thomas Corcoran, though Protestant, also had lots for the burial of Catholic slaves: Warner, At Peace, 252.

[xiii]. Warner, At Peace, x; Kelly, Holy Trinity, 78; President and Directors of Georgetown College, to Michael J. Curley, Archbishop of Baltimore, DC Liber 7723-513 (February 12, 1942), Recorder of Deeds.

[xiv]. “GU to Transfer Ancient Graves“, Washington Post (April 17, 1953).

[xv]. By way of comparison, the ratio of graves to gravestones in Holy Trinity’s third burial ground, Holy Rood Cemetery, is 7312 to 2550, almost 3 to 1: Msgr. Maurice T. Fox to James A. Hickey, Archbishop of Washington (December 21, 1984), AAW (Archives of the Archdiocese of Washington).

[xvi]. “Cemetery Yields Forgotten Graves at Georgetown U.“, Washington Star (January 24, 1931); “Old Graveyard Unearthed at Dormitory Site”, Washington Herald (January 25, 1931).

[xvii]. Section 61, lots 61-63, Interments File, Mount Olivet Cemetery.

[xviii]. Kelly, Holy Trinity, 112-3.

[xix]. ibid.; National Republican (March 31, 1866, November 5, 1867); Warner, At Peace, 74.

[xx]. Georgetown Courier (April 3, 1869), but the only deed found to confirm this is DC Liber JAS7 f.434/326.

[xxi]. Maurice T. Fox to James A. Hickey (December 21, 1984), AAW.

[xxii]. Warner, At Peace, 199; Section 41, lot 400, HRC (Holy Rood Cemetery).

[xxiii]. Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Application Files 1800-1900, National Archives.

[xxiv]. Christian Hines, Early Recollections of Washington City (Washington, 1866),79; John Clagett Proctor, Proctor’s Washington and Environs (1949), 285; Index of War of 1812 Veterans, National Archives.

[xxv]. Wesley E. Pippenger, District of Columbia Probate Records, 1801-1852 (Westminster, Md.: Family Line Publications, 1996), 357; Section 58, lot 7, HRC (Holy Rood Cemetery).

[xxvi]. Section 24, lot 3, HRC.

[xxvii]. Section 18, lot 0, HRC.

[xxviii]. Washington Star, (May 30, 1891).

[xxix]. Mary Mitchell, Divided Town (Barre, Massachusetts: Barre Publishers, 1968), 36; Washington Past and Present, I:382, and Journal of the Columbia Historical Society 1960-1962, p. 132, both quoting Wash DC 63rd Council, 1865-6; obituary, Washington Star (April 4, 1862); section 15, lot 124, HRC.

[xxx]. Eugene L. Meyer, “Tracking a Custer Indian Fighter” Washington Post (March 27, 1980); section 23, lot 257, HRC.

[xxxi]. G.A.R. Memorial Day Programs, 1901-1910, Library of Congress. One young man who sang in the quartet was John A. Foote, later Dean of the Georgetown School of Medicine, now buried in section 41, lot 451, HRC; obituary, Washington Star (April 13, 1931).

[xxxii]. Washington Star, (May 30, 1891).

[xxxiii]. During peak years, the ratio of white to black burials was about six to one: Annual Report to the Commissioners of the District of Columbia, 1889-1900. Georgetown University puts the total number of burials at Holy Rood at 7312: Maurice T. Fox to James A. Hickey (December 21, 1984), AAW.

[xxxiv]. Warner, At Peace, 90-91.

[xxxv]. How many of these families gained their freedom is explained by Letitia Woods Brown, Free Negroes in the District of Columbia 1790-1846 (New York: Oxford Press, 1972).

[xxxvi]. 1830 Directory of Georgetown. Rebecca Barker, Census of 1880; National Intelligencer (June 5, 1850).

[xxxvii]. Letitia Woods Brown, Free Negroes in the District of Columbia.

[xxxviii]. There is no clearly designated section for slaves––or for paupers of any race––in Holy Rood, so they must have been buried where tombstones––indicating paid burials––are least in evidence, i.e. the northwestern corner of Holy Rood. This area is called the “Old Ground” on the Holy Rood cemetery plan (November 8, 1933), GUA.

[xxxix]. Maurice T. Fox to James A. Hickey (December 21, 1984), AAW; Kelly, Holy Trinity, 78, 113; Coleman Nevils, S.J., President, Georgetown University, to Michael J. Curley, Archbishop of Baltimore (January 9, 1933), GUA.

[xl]. Coleman Nevils, to Michael J. Curley (January 9, 1933), GUA

[xli]. Michael J. Curley to Coleman Nevils (January 10, 1933), GUA.

[xlii]. Charles F. Meng, in “GU to Close Cemetery”, Metro Scene, Washington Post (November 11, 1984); “Perpetual care was discontinued, but minimal upkeep is maintained.” Leo J. O’Donovan, S.J., President, Georgetown University, to Mrs. William B. Bryan (June 10, 1992), AAW.

[xliii]. Memorandum, Mount Olivet Cemetery Company, Archdiocese of Washington (no date); Rev. Edward J. Herrmann, Vicar General, 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), AAW.

[xliv]. Edward J. Herrmann to B.V. Bird (June 30, 1972), AAW; Edward J. Herrmann to B.V. Bird (November 6, 1972), AAW; Timothy S. Healy, S.J., President, Georgetown University, to James A. Hickey (February 25, 1981), AAW: Fr. Healy asked for permission to remove the graves of Holy Rood to an Archdiocesan cemetery, and Msgr. John F. Donoghue wrote the reply at the bottom: “No”.

[xlv]. Charles Meng, Vice President for Administration & Facilities, To Whom It May Concern (May 18, 1984), AAW; Susan Kopacz, Director, Facilities and Administration, quoted in The Hoya (October 29, 1991).

[xlvi]. Memorandum of Msgr. Raymond J. Boland, Chancellor, Archdiocese of Washington, of a meeting with Timothy S. Healy (September 24, 1984), AAW; Timothy S. Healy, quoted in Maurice T. Fox to James A. Hickey (December 21, 1984), AAW.

[xlvii]. Stanton Kolb to James A. Hickey (October 5, 1984); Raymond J. Boland to Stanton Kolb (October 10, 1984); Raymond J. Boland to James  A. Hickey (January 7, 1985), AAW.

[xlviii]. James A. Hickey to Timothy S. Healy (November 9, 1984), AAW.

[xlix]. Kolb et al vs. President and Trustees of Georgetown University, CA 14338-84 (December, 1984).

[l]. Timothy S. Healy, quoted in Maurice T. Fox to James A. Hickey (December 21, 1984), AAW.

[li]. Section 36, NE 1/4 of lot 420, HRC, purchased by Georgetown University from Mrs. C.B. Sully (July 3, 1953).

[lii]. Address of Charles Meng, Vice President for Administration, Georgetown University, on the occasion of the internment [sic] of Susan Wheeler Decatur at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Memorial Day, May 30,1988, GUA; ”Reunited, A Naval Hero And His Belle” Philadelphia Inquirer (May 30, 1988).




Carlton Fletcher

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