The Revival of Holy Rood Cemetery

by Randy Rieland


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.”


( Glover Park GazetteApril, 2019)




Carlton Fletcher

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