CS PHOTO BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN
CS PHOTO BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN

Enslaved men and women who were buried in unmarked, forgotten graves in the Archdiocese of Washington will be remembered at a special vigil Mass on Saturday Feb. 3 at 5:15 p.m. at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where Cardinal Donald Wuerl will bless and dedicate commemorative plaques honoring them. Local Catholics and other members of the community are invited to attend the Mass to prayerfully remember and honor those enslaved men and women.

The inscription on the plaques reads: “Dedicated to the memory of those unknown who were enslaved and buried throughout the Archdiocese of Washington.” The top of each plaque has an image of Christ crucified on the cross, and the bottom of each plaque includes a quotation from Wisdom 3:1: “The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them.”

By this spring, the plaques will be placed in the archdiocese’s five major cemeteries: Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington; St. Mary’s Queen of Peace Cemetery in Helen in St. Mary’s County; Resurrection Cemetery in Clinton in Prince George’s County; and in Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Silver Spring and All Souls Cemetery in Germantown, both in Montgomery County.

The wording for the plaque for Mount Olivet Cemetery is slightly different, noting “…those unknown who were enslaved and who are buried in this cemetery…” Mount Olivet Cemetery, founded in 1858, was racially integrated from its beginning and was one of the first in Washington, D.C., to be integrated.

John Spalding, the president and CEO of Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Washington, said it is important to remember and honor these enslaved people. “It was their labor and sacrifice that laid the foundation for this country, with no gain” to them, he said. Slave labor and that of emancipated African-Americans helped build the White House and U.S. Capitol and many other noted Washington landmarks and institutions, including Georgetown University, which this past spring held a prayer service to express public contrition over the Maryland Society of Jesus’s 1838 sale of 272 enslaved women, children and men to benefit the university, which was then in financial difficulty. Georgetown renamed one of its campus buildings Isaac Hawkins Hall after the name of the first enslaved person listed on that bill of sale.

Spalding noted that the plaques will be placed in each of the five cemeteries in a well-traveled location where people can prayerfully reflect on the enslaved women and men buried throughout the Archdiocese of Washington.

“They’re also part of our Catholic family, who embraced Christ and his redemption even while they were enslaved, and their faith never faltered,” said Spalding. “It’s a small tribute to acknowledge their existence, their sacrifice and their unwavering faith.”

Sandra Coles-Bell, the program director for the Archdiocese of Washington’s Office of Cultural Diversity and Outreach, noted that “the dehumanization and degradation imposed on a culture and race of people” in slavery runs counter to Catholic social teaching on the God-given dignity of all men and women.

“Yet, many Catholics actively participated in not only the selling of other humans, but also utilized this same mode of labor for use within the parishes in counties within the Archdiocese of Washington,” she said. “Those who were enslaved were often not afforded a befitting burial for a human being and were buried in unmarked graves, as they were not considered human.”

Coles-Bell said from a historical context, the blessing and placing of the memorial plaques in the Catholic cemeteries “provides the archdiocese the opportunity to recognize the sin of slavery and racism, as was done in Cardinal Wuerl’s pastoral letter, The Challenge of Racism Today, and to provide a dignity and honor to those Catholics who worked and prayed to the same God that you and I do.”

On Wednesday Jan. 24, a 6 p.m. Mass of Remembrance was scheduled at St. Augustine Church in Washington for direct descendants of the 272 enslaved women, children and men sold to benefit Georgetown in 1838. St. Augustine Parish, the mother church for African-American Catholics in the nation’s capital, was founded in 1858 by free men and women of color, including people emancipated from slavery.

On Thursday Feb. 8 at 6:30 p.m., an inter-religious prayer service remembering survivors and victims of human trafficking – which Pope Francis has called a modern-day form of slavery – will be held at Trinity Washington University. That event, which will include a reception after the prayer service, is sponsored by the Archdiocese of Washington’s Office of Cultural Diversity and Outreach, by Migration and Refugee Services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, by Trinity Washington University and by the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington.