Saturday, April 03, 2010

URBAN ARCHAEOLOGY: Holy Rood Cemetery's Sad State of Disrepair

ONE OF THE DISTRICT'S BEST VIEWS unfortunately sits in one of the most depressing of places: Holy Rood Cemetery off Wisconsin Avenue at the edge of Glover Park. Some cemeteries are beautiful places, like Brooklyn's parrot-filled Green-Wood, literary Sleepy Hollow near Concord, Mass., and Hollywood in Richmond, Va., just to name a few.

But while Holy Rood has its charms, it is a pretty sad place. Years of neglect have left it in awful shape. Graves are damaged, vandalized and largely forgotten. Unlike Capitol Hill's Congressional Cemetery, there are no known famous politicians buried there (at least according to the authoritative Political Graveyard database). But it is the oldest Irish Catholic cemetery in operation in the District, according to The Washington Post, which documented Holy Rood's sorry state in 2008.

And that's not all, so says The Post:
As many as 1,000 free Catholic blacks and slaves are believed to be buried there, although many are in unmarked graves or were buried with wooden markers that rotted away.

Other graves hold Catholic hoteliers, butchers, laborers, maids, war veterans, mothers who died in childbirth, victims of the 1918 influenza epidemic and many others.
When I was up at Holy Rood this week, I had lost track of the ongoing conflict over the terrible condition of the cemetery.

To sum up the situation, Holy Rood was established as a cemetery by Holy Trinity Church, which was founded by Jesuits affiliated with Georgetown University. During World War II, oversight of Holy Trinity was transferred to the Archdiocese of Washington, but Holy Rood was left under the university's care.

As The Post reported:
It has not been a happy combination, according to research by local historian Carlton Fletcher.

Over the years, the university has appeared at times to be a reluctant cemetery owner, skimping on maintenance, fighting with owners of burial plots and, at one point, seeking to remove the graves so that the land could be developed.
The university repaired Holy Rood's Wisconsin Avenue retaining wall and keeps the grass mowed.

When I was up at Holy Rood this week, it's pretty clear that not much has changed. Graves are deteriorating. Many grave inscriptions are illegible. (Fortunately, there is a partial directory online.)

As time passes, Holy Rood's condition will only worsen.

Perhaps the neighborhood's dog lovers could come to the rescue and establish a satellite branch of for Holy Rood?

» More background on Holy Rood at Georgetown Metropolitan

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