Founding Holy Rood Cemetery

The Jesuits land on St. Clement’s Island, 1634.

The story of Holy Rood Cemetery begins with the arrival of the Jesuits at St. Clement’s Island in St. Mary’s County, Maryland in 1634. A haven for Catholics and religious tolerance, Maryland was home to John Carroll, America’s first Bishop and founder of Georgetown University.

In 1787, Carroll was granted the deed to Lot 72, at what is now 3513 N Street, NW, in Georgetown, for a public space for Catholic worship. Trinity Church was built there in 1794, adjacent to land already being used as the congregation’s first cemetery.

Trinity’s second cemetery, the College Ground, was established in 1818 on the Georgetown College campus, near 37th and P Streets, NW. According to Trinity Church records, between 1831 and 1832 parish burials at the College Ground increased by 250 percent, most likely as a result of the Asian Cholera epidemic in Washington, and high rates of infant and child mortality.

To address the need for more burial space, in 1832, Trinity’s pastor, Rev. James M. Lucas, S.J., directed the purchase of land on High Street (now Wisconsin Ave., N.W.) for Trinity’s third cemetery. The new cemetery, known as the Upper Graveyard, was on a hillside north of Georgetown with a panoramic view of the city. Thomas Corcoran, a prosperous businessman who was twice elected mayor of Georgetown, is believed to have donated some of the land for the Upper Graveyard, and his son, William Wilson Corcoran, is credited with endowing the cemetery.

In 1853, the Rev. Joseph Aschwanden, S.J., pastor of Holy Trinity Church (formerly Trinity Church), added several sections to the cemetery, and a house for the sexton and grave digger. The cemetery’s name was changed in 1866 to Holy Rood, taken from the Scottish haly ruid meaning “Holy Cross.”

In the years following the Civil War, Holy Rood saw several improvements. A gate at the entrance was installed, and a stone retaining wall was built along High Street. A small brownstone holding crypt, or vault, was built into the hillside area above the retaining wall to accommodate caskets awaiting burial.

A Resting Place for Veterans

Grave of Joseph Nevitt, Revolutionary War soldier.

One of the earliest graves at Holy Rood is that of Joseph Nevitt (1753-1834). Born in St Mary’s County, Maryland, Nevitt was a Minuteman with the rank of Private. He fought the British along the Potomac River at the Battle of St. George Island, the first battle of the Revolutionary War on Maryland soil. The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) commemorated his grave at Holy Rood with a memorial in September 2000.

Holy Rood Cemetery is also the resting place of Confederate and Union veterans. The Washington Star of May 30, 1891 reported that there are 40 Union veterans buried in Holy Rood, their graves marked by distinctive white headstones furnished by the Quartermaster General.

One such Union veteran was Captain Thomas Henry French (1843-1882), a native of Baltimore, Maryland. French, a Lieutenant in the 10th U.S. Infantry, participated in the siege of Petersburg. He became a Captain and took part in the Yellowstone Campaign and the Battle of the Little Big Horn, where he was noted for his bravery.

The American Civil War divided families as well as the country. One example is the Clements of Georgetown. Horace Clements served for the Union with the District of Columbia Militia, while his older brothers Joseph and Andrew joined an Alexandria company of Confederate volunteers from the District. All three brothers survived the war and returned to live in Georgetown. Andrew and Joseph are buried in the family plot in Holy Rood.

African Americans at Holy Rood

Grave of Henrietta Steptoe, a nurse and midwife.

Until the mid-19th century, one-third of Holy Trinity’s congregation was African American. Early African American parishioners came to Georgetown with the Catholic families who moved up from southern Maryland. The first seven years of Trinity Church’s burial records, which note whether a deceased African American was free or enslaved, show 36 burials of persons who were enslaved.

Many of the families of free African Americans are also buried at Holy Rood, including the family of Anne Marie Becraft, a prominent Catholic educator in Georgetown, who died in 1833.

In 1989, Georgetown University prepared an index of burials at Holy Rood which identified 500 African Americans in the record. However, many shared surnames with white families in Georgetown, and the grave markers of the decease who were enslaved may have been wooden and did not survive. Local historians believe that many more African Americans are buried at Holy Rood than records indicate.

Holy Rood Cemetery Today

Holy Rood Cemetery today.

The last cemetery plot at Holy Rood was sold in 1915. Without revenue from lot sales, funds for cemetery maintenance were scarce during the Depression, and Holy Trinity’s involvement with the cemetery diminished. As founder of Trinity Church, Georgetown University continued to own Holy Rood, and over time, assumed responsibility for cemetery upkeep. The university kept the grass mowed, and rebuilt the stone retaining wall along Wisconsin Avenue in 2002.

In 2010, a group of Holy Trinity parishioners “rediscovered” Holy Rood and began working with Georgetown University and the Archdiocese of Washington on a plan to restore the cemetery and to allow Holy Trinity to build a columbarium there. In September 2018, the university, Holy Trinity, and the archdiocese reached final agreement on a plan for Holy Rood that includes establishing a Perpetual Care Endowment to ensure the cemetery’s good upkeep in the future. The Holy Trinity Columbarium was completed in November 2019.