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Historic St. Ignatius cemetery has blessing to acknowledge resting places of enslaved persons

In light, cold rain after Sunday Mass, Cardinal Wilton Gregory said Nov. 26 that “common Christian concern” had brought the congregation of St. Ignatius Church at Chapel Point, Maryland, outdoors to pray at their parish cemetery overlooking the Port Tobacco River.

It was the latest in a series of pastoral visits by Cardinal Gregory to bless parish cemeteries that hold remains of once-enslaved people.

As has been the case at other parish cemeteries, St. Ignatius’s pastor, Jesuit Father Thomas F. Clifford said that recent efforts to clear overgrown weeds and brush at one edge of the cemetery found the section believed to have held the remains of people who were held as slaves was larger than previously thought. Like the church itself in those days, the cemetery was segregated by race.

In his blessing Cardinal Gregory acknowledged “the pain and injustice of slavery” as well as hurt to the descendants of those who were enslaved, all of whom “await the coming of the Lord in glory.”

“We pray that our liturgy here this afternoon may bring peace and healing to our community, honor all those who are buried here and help all of us to recommit ourselves to the work of justice for all people,” the Cardinal prayed. He went on to say: “In a spirit of repentance, we earnestly ask you to look upon all these graves and to bless them, so that while we bless the places where the bodies of your servants are buried, their souls may be taken to paradise.”

Father Clifford told the Catholic Standard that when the parish brought in goats a few years ago to graze in the overgrown cemetery, one family told him they were looking for a grave marker for an ancestor. The family had a marker number. “When I came back out with a map, I was shocked to see that it was right where it was supposed to be just surrounded by shoulder-high knotweed.”

St. Ignatius at Chapel Point was founded in 1641 by Jesuits who arrived to settle a new English colony with freedom of religion, making it a safe place for Catholics who were persecuted in England for their faith. Over time, Jesuits in the colony owned vast plantations and operated them with enslaved people. In 2016, Jesuit Father Tim Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, issued a formal apology on behalf of the Jesuit community to the descendants of slaves held by the religious order. Since then, the Jesuits have worked to bring healing and reconciliation over that period of their history.

Father Clifford said he had not yet placed in the parish cemetery one of the signs that have been installed elsewhere in the Archdiocese, acknowledging that enslaved people, some known, others unknown, were buried there. His delay has been a practical matter of trying to clearly define where within the large cemetery grounds were the sections that held enslaved people.

Above and below, Cardinal Gregory blesses children as he distributes Holy Communion during a Nov. 26 Mass at St. Ignatius Church at chapel Point, Maryland. To the right of the cardinal is Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy E. Campbell Jr. After the Mass, Cardinal Gregory blessed the parish cemetery where the remains of once-enslaved people are buried. (CS photos by Mihoko Owada)

Earlier in his homily during Mass for the Solemnity of Christ the King, Cardinal Gregory likened Mark Twain’s tale of The Prince and the Pauper to the day’s Gospel reading about how on Judgment Day, all will be asked about how they cared for the poor – “the paupers in our midst, because in reality they are the Prince Himself in their disguise. Those who are saved and those who are condemned will both have failed to recognize the Prince in His masked poverty.” In the Twain story, identical-appearing boys switch roles – one a prince, one a pauper – as each desires to experience the life of the other.

Cardinal Gregory continued with the analogy saying: “We must all be very attentive to how the Prince conceals Himself in our very midst and treat Him as His royal character so richly deserves. Each day every one of us is confronted by this dilemma as we pass by the paupers in our lives. Why would the Prince of Life choose to conceal Himself in such an unusual disguise? Is he intentionally only trying to trick us or to confuse us, or is he just trying to make us more attentive to the needs of our sisters and brothers in poverty?”

The parish cemetery at St. Ignatius Church at Chapel Point, Maryland, overlooks the Port Tobacco River. Recent cleanup efforts at the cemetery found the section believed to hold the remains of people who were held as slaves is larger than previously thought. Cardinal Wilton Gregory blessed the newly rediscovered section on Nov. 26. (CS photo by Mihoko Owada)