Holy Rood Cemetery was established by Holy Trinity Catholic Church in 1832. Originally named Trinity Church Upper Grave Yard for the first three decades of its existence, the first burial there was recorded on April 22nd of the following year. The cemetery was active from the mid-nineteenth century, when it was enlarged between 1850 and 1870, into the early twentieth century. In the early 1980s, the Holy Rood notified holders of burial rights that it would not accept more burials. But the holders sued, obtaining a consent decree in 1984 that forced it to keep the cemetery open and honor all contracts. A few burials subsequently took place there in the late 1990s, and it still has an occasional burial, making it the oldest active Catholic cemetery in D.C.
When Holy Trinity Church, which was founded by the Jesuits of then-Georgetown College, was transferred to the Archdiocese of Washington in 1942, Holy Rood remained in the care of Georgetown University. Over the years, the university has appeared at times to be a reluctant cemetery owner, skimping on maintenance and fighting with owners of burial plots. In the 1970s the university proposed that the Archdiocese take over the 7,000 graves, but the deal fell apart when the archdiocese proposed to charge the university $2 million. Then in the 1980’s, the university sought to disinter the bodies and remove the graves so that the land could be developed. This was blocked, however, by a legal action brought by the remaining holders of burial rights.
Georgetown University continues to reluctantly oversee the cemetery, which today reflects years of disuse and neglect. Many of the tombstones are toppled, damaged or overgrown, and grass and weeds grow up through large cracks in the lone asphalt walkway leading through it. The deplorable condition of the cemetery today is particularly unfortunate in light of the history contained within it.
Unlike Capitol Hill’s Historic Congressional Cemetery, there are no known famous politicians or dignitaries buried in Holy Rood Cemetery. Most of the graves hold Catholic hoteliers, butchers, laborers, maids, war veterans, mothers who died in childbirth, victims of the 1918 influenza epidemic and many others. However, it also includes the graves of as many as 1,000 Catholic free and enslaved African Americans, and may be the best-documented slave burial grounds in the greater D.C. area. Unfortunately, most are in unmarked graves or were buried with wooden markers that rotted away many years ago. Georgetown University libraries maintain the burial records, but if restoration of the cemetery does not occur soon, there may be little left to which the records can be matched.