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Clean-up effort at Sacred Heart cemetery seen as ‘work of justice’ for enslaved who may be buried there

Volunteers help clear brush on the grounds of Sacred Heart Parish in Bowie, Maryland on Jan. 14, 2023. The effort was spurred by archaeological work that found what appear to be many unmarked graves on the property that may be of enslaved people who worked there when the Jesuits operated a plantation in that area during colonial times. In the background is the historic Sacred Heart Chapel. (CS photos by Mihoko Owada)

Early Saturday morning Jan. 14, despite snow flurries and cold, stinging winds, parishioners entered a ravine below the cemetery at Sacred Heart Church in Bowie, Maryland while clad in sweatpants and coats and carrying bow saws, chain saws, loppers, and pruners. This was all done to start what will be a years-long effort to locate unmarked remains of enslaved individuals who worked on the property while it was a Jesuit-owned plantation during colonial times and before the Civil War. 

The project's origins were described by Father Michael Russo, the parochial vicar of Sacred Heart Parish.

“We could see tombstones overgrown in the woods, people have known they’re there for a while. The perimeter of the cemetery was getting messy and overgrown, so we decided let’s clean it up. As we were beginning that effort, we consulted with Catholic Cemeteries [of The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington] and they advised us that we want a Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) done at some point,” Father Russo said. 

GPR is a survey performed to locate any structures or objects underground by firing an energy pulse into the ground and measuring the intensity and time it takes for any reflected signal to return. Any findings are considered “anomalies” until further investigation, since large objects such as rocks or metals could also show up on the survey, along with burial sites. Any anomalies were marked: small flags can be seen scattered around the property, they indicate suspected burial sites, while the tied plastic ribbons are unconfirmed anomalies. 

Currently, the historic Sacred Heart Chapel, the main Sacred Heart Church, the cemetery, the Grotto of Our Lady of Rock Springs, the Hogan Center, a building for religious education classes, and a baseball field are all located on the parish’s 33-acre property. Father Russo estimates that about one acre of the field has been surveyed, along with an acre of the cemetery.

“We decided it’s going to take a while to start clearing brush and debris, we had to find landscapers and all of that, willing to do it, so we said let’s start with the open area and just check, and so they checked our back ballfield and the area around our Grotto to Mary,” Father Russo said. “The radar can’t see through leaves and debris, thorn bushes and things like that. It interferes.” 

A wood chipper was stationed nearby to consolidate the removed shrubbery. While burials were not found in the field, architectural structures were. According to Father Russo, these buildings potentially could have been a barn or housing for the enslaved.

“Maybe a barn, maybe some buildings. Some written evidence suggests maybe slave quarters, or other kinds of residences would have been on the property,” Russo said. “They came back once we were able to clear it, but as we’re clearing…we started hitting stones. At first, it was just a few, and then it was 20, and then it was 50, and then it was 80, and then it was 100, and then it was 140. We’re up to about 200-something, I keep losing count,” Father Russo said.  

Many tombstones have eroded over the years, and although some locals had an idea of the history of the area, when the parish announced the project, Father Russo said many were shocked. 

“There was shock and surprise. A lot of the older generations that have been around, they’re the ones that still have the memories of ‘oh yeah, someone mentioned that once’ or ‘oh yeah, I remember walking the woods and seeing a tombstone once,’” Father Russo said. 

Any time artifacts were found, they were moved over the years along the edge of the cemetery to memorialize them. 

“They did that a few times, again, not realizing the potential scale…if you don’t know what you’re looking for, which no one did until we brought an archaeologist out, you wouldn’t know what you’re dealing with,” Father Russo said.

The archaeologist working on the project is Laura Masur, Ph.D. Masur is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at The Catholic University of America. Masur was not at the clean-up event on Jan. 14, but led a volunteer clean-up effort by CUA students there two days later, to mark a day of community service for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“This is a work of justice, atoning for injustice, since many, if not most, of these burials are of the enslaved or formerly enslaved who were not given proper dignity. And then whose burials have been lost and neglected for at least a century. So it is an act of justice, to atone for that,” Father Russo said. 

Father Michael Russo, the parochial vicar at Sacred Heart Parish in Bowie, said it is a ‘work of justice’ to clear the grounds near the parish cemetery where enslaved people may be buried in unmarked graves from the time in the 1700s and early 1800s when the Jesuits operated a plantation in that area. (CS photo/ Mihoko Owada)

The more than 200 unmarked graves were discovered behind the historic chapel, which was built in 1854 following a fire in 1853 that destroyed the previous structure, along with its records. This leaves a gap in information about the Society of Jesus priests that previously owned the property and the many enslaved people who worked there, according to Robert Hayes, a local parishioner and head of the History Committee at Sacred Heart. 

“We knew from historical records that many slaves had worked here, dozens and hundreds of slaves had been here on the grounds back in the 17- and early 1800s. But to know how many were actually buried here and where?” Hayes said. “The records aren’t so great.” 

The original church was established on the Jesuit estate known as White Marsh Manor in 1729. The property was named after the white soil, due to the large amounts of mineral mica that contribute to the sparkling white appearance. 

Hayes, who greeted an estimated 50 volunteers along with Father Russo at 10 a.m. in the chapel’s parking lot, established the objectives for the day: to clean, to clear, and to honor the dead. Like many involved on this project, Hayes was overwhelmed with the number of potential graves that continue to be found there. Groups broke out in groups of four to five people to begin work.

Volunteers help clear brush on the grounds of Sacred Heart Parish in Bowie, Maryland on Jan. 14, 2023. The effort was spurred by archaeological work that found what appear to be many unmarked graves on the property that may be of enslaved people who worked there when the Jesuits operated a plantation in that area during colonial times. (CS photos by Mihoko Owada)

“It’s both interesting and sobering…because you realize the magnitude. But also sobering in the instance that it is likely many slaves who were buried there on the hill,” Hayes said. “You realize that as Catholics, for us, this is a corporal work of mercy, right? Because we were called to bury the dead and honor the dead.”

Hayes had to warn everyone to avoid touching any found objects too much, and that per Masur’s advice, location and preservation matters, so to make sure everyone gently left artifacts close to where they found them. 

“Let’s not disturb anything, from a historical [standpoint], because we really don’t know the full totality at all, what’s out there, we know there are likely hundreds of gravestones, but there may also be things like pieces of pottery or other remnants of the people who lived and were buried here,” Hayes said. “The location of those items can be significant, as well as, the more you touch them, the more you might disintegrate them or make them not as usable for an archaeologist.” 

Hayes hopes the project can provide greater insight on the history of the property, especially for local descendants of the enslaved people who want to learn more about their family history.

“Better understanding for [descendants] of their great-great-great grandparents, the families, a lot of that has been passed down orally through history. Some of that has been captured in records, but for them to have a better understanding because that was not publicized as much. We publicized much of the other history, but publicizing their history (is important) as well,” Hayes said. “We all want to know about our ancestors.”

Robert Hayes, a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Bowie who heads its History Committee, said the effort to clear parish grounds where enslaved people may be buried in unmarked graves reflects the Catholic corporal work of mercy of burying and honoring the dead. He also hopes the effort provides greater insight on the history of the property, especially for local descendants of the enslaved people who might be buried there. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

George Sullivan, a recent addition to the Sacred Heart parish as his family moved to Bowie during the pandemic, volunteered to clean the area along with his family. 

“Funny part is, the pandemic brought us closer to the faith, instead of like a lot of people [who] separated from the faith. Our family was fortunate, it kind of brought us closer together, started going to church every Sunday,” Sullivan said.

His wife and two middle school aged children toughed the cold weather to collect branches and rake leaves off the ground, and flagged a few rocks throughout the day.

“[They’re a] huge help, it’s a little bit chilly, but it’s actually pretty awesome just to see the community come out here on a day like this, it’s not like it’s 70 degrees like it was last week. But it feels good, it feels good to come out and know you’re doing a good deed, which this country needs more of,” Sullivan said. 

Sullivan said it was key to make this a family occasion to set an example.

“It was really important just to show our kids how to give back to the community and give back to people that need our help. It doesn’t cost any money, just costs a little bit of time and labor, and a little bit of energy,” Sullivan said.

In the photos above and below, boys carry wood and rake leaves during a Jan. 14 clean-up effort on the grounds of Sacred Heart Parish in Bowie, Maryland, where enslaved people who worked there when the Jesuits operated a plantation in that area in the 1700s and early 1800s may be buried in unmarked graves near the parish cemetery. (CS photos by Mihoko Owada)

Michael Pausic is a member of the parish’s History Committee and serves as a docent at Sacred Heart. He has been a member of the parish for about 30 years. Although the event has been eye-opening for Pausic, he was not completely taken aback at the development. 

“It’s all overgrown for centuries, and the last time anyone looked and cleaned this place was the ‘70s when it became a parish. This was just a mission church, so people just came and went all the time,” Pausic said. “In my walking around the cemetery, when I was giving the tours, I could see stones down the hill. I knew there were plenty of bodies, but I had no idea it was anything like this, and I think we’re all pretty astounded.”

Pausic explained how he processes the role members of the Catholic Church had in ownership of enslaved people. 

“History is history. If you want to understand history, you can’t judge it, because you can never put yourself in the mindset of people that lived several hundred years ago. You can’t. So you got to find it and live with it,” Pausic said. 

Moving forward, Pausic hopes that there is more information about the graves, although some questions may never be answered.

“We’ll never probably know who is buried here, but [hopefully] moving forward with some kind of memorial for the people that are here,” Pausic said.

In addition to getting married and receiving her First Communion in the chapel where she was baptized, Ellen Ewing has been a member of the Sacred Heart church for 55 years. She said the project has been a complete revelation. 

“I had no idea. Just looking at all the flags, I’m like, you have got to be kidding, wow,” Ewing said. 

She anticipates that the effort will at least provide the relatives of the departed some closure.

“[I hope] that we’re able to give peace to the families who think they might have people here and to give them a place of honor. My parents are buried [in the main cemetery], tons of my friends and family are buried over there, my friends’ families are buried over there…Just to give them the honor that my family has would be a tremendous thing,” Ewing said. “It doesn’t even have to be a friend or a family member, it is a person of God, so they all need to have a proper burial and a proper place to be undisturbed.”

A man pauses to pray before a statue of Mary on Jan. 14, when parishioners and community members volunteered to do clean-up work on the grounds of Sacred Heart Parish in Bowie, Maryland, where there are believed to many unmarked graves of enslaved people who worked there when the Jesuits operated a plantation in that area during colonial times. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)