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.