When you walk into Holy Rood Cemetery, past the chain-link fence with the hole in it, up the broken asphalt paths, beside the dead tree limbs cut down, red and rotting, it is hard to associate this place with the beautiful brick and well-maintained trees and gardens of Georgetown University.

Holy Rood Cemetery was established by Jesuits from Georgetown College in 1832 as a third plot for Holy Trinity Catholic Church and to this day remains under the control of the university. Since it does not bring in revenue of its own, it is dependent on university funding for its maintenance and upkeep costs. But the cemetery is, for the most part, no longer operational.

A number of the locally deceased were buried on the site, with the oldest visible gravestone in the cemetery dating back to 1834.

Among the deceased are an estimated 1,000 free and enslaved African Americans, according to the African American Heritage Trail database. Most of their graves are unmarked, some never were, while other wooden plank markings have long since rotted away.

Today, the lot is littered with old McDonald’s cups and candy wrappers. A few of the larger graves are hardly visible among the branches of bushes and trees, some growing up between split stones. Grass overruns every inch of the grounds, from the graves themselves to the worn path winding through the graveyard.

Early in the 1980s, in an attempt to close the cemetery, Georgetown University contacted families with plots at Holy Rood announcing that they would not be accepting any more burials. The families sued, forcing Georgetown to honor all contracts it held for burials, which has had a financial impact on the university.

Additionally, according to local historian Carlton Fletcher, Fr. Timothy Healy, S.J., former president of Georgetown University, announced in 1984 that the university must be allowed to convert the property to some other use in the future. Georgetown has since assured the public that no further plans for converting the property remain.

Families of the dead have launched a number of complaints over the years at Georgetown University for its failure to maintain the sites of their loved ones’ final resting place.

One man told Associated Press that he had seen lawn mowers hitting the graves while performing their duties, leaving behind scratches and marks. A large gravestone stands near the center of the park, its base covered with gashes and surrounded by unkempt grass.

University spokesperson Julie Bataille said that Georgetown has not forgotten about Holy Rood.

“Georgetown performs routine maintenance at Holy Rood – things including mowing the grass, removing decayed trees, repairing the fence and conducting spot security checks,” Bataille said. “A few years ago, the university spent more than $1 million to repair the retaining wall adjacent to Wisconsin Avenue.”

She said that the university works individually with family members who bring forth about issues about individual graves.

Bataille acknowledged “the historic nature of the property and that more work needs to be done,” but said that currently, Georgetown has no specific or concrete plans for repairs.

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