GU Continuing to Disrespect Georgetown’s Irish Forefathers

A Pity Upon A Hill

Today for St. Patrick’s Day GM thought he’d broach a more somber topic than you normally see on St. Patrick’s Day. The topic: the Holy Rood Cemetery on Wisconsin Ave. This cemetery is the final resting place of generations of Irish-Americans (and other groups) who once lived in Georgetown. GM brought this up a couple years ago, but now seems like a good time to repost the article because absolutely nothing has changed since then. So without further ado, GM presents “A Pity on a Hill“:

On a hill overlooking Georgetown sits a shameful display of neglect on the part of Georgetown University: Holy Rood Cemetery. Built by Georgetown’s Holy Trinity Church in 1832, the cemetery has a strong connection to the neighborhood’s history. It is the final resting place of generations of Georgetown’s German and Irish Catholics as well as up to 1000 slaves and free Black residents.

And today it is a mess.

Grave stones are toppled left and right. Weeds grow through the cracks. The overall feeling you get visiting it is that it has been abandoned. Check it out:

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Georgetown University came to be the custodian of the cemetery when it transferred control of Trinity to the Diocese in 1942. While the numbers of burials declined sharply after the 1930’s, they continued in much diminished numbers. GM recently walked through the cemetery and found this headstone from a burial just last year:

Holy Rood Cemetery Headstone

According to a Washington Post article on the cemetery, Georgetown University once seriously considered trying to relocate the graves from the site to reuse the property. Walking through there, it doesn’t take long to figure out why: the property is beautiful and has amazing views:

View from Holy Rood Cemetery

According to the Post, GU President Timothy Healy said in 1984: “The University takes the position that someday, somehow, the University must be allowed to convert this property from cemetery property to some other use.” Apparently, however, the school has backed off those goals.

It would be quite a huge effort to relocate the graves. They’d have to try to locate descendants and ask if they would like to move the grave. Moreover, there are likely scores of unmarked graves on the site. It would take a wholesale search to make sure they don’t end up with a Poltergeist situation.

According to the Post, the University “know[s] that work needs to be done, and [is] trying to develop what next steps may be appropriate.” A year later, not much progress seems to have been made.

Interestingly, in 1878 in his Chronicles of Georgetown, D.C., Richard P. Jackson wrote about Holy Rood:

To improve a cemetery requires considerable labor and money, W’hich might be raised by the ladies of the congregation doing as the ladies of the Presbyterian congregation did when their cemetery was in a state of dilapidation— going to the lot holders and collecting five dollars from one, and ten from another; and those who were not able to pay, to give a few days’ labor in the cemetery. In this way Holyrood would soon improve in appearance, and become a resort for strangers as well as the citizens of the town. Certainly, those who are lot holders ought to take a pride in beautifying the grounds. One could plant flowers, another trees, others could gravel the walks.

Thus it seems that Holy Rood has suffered from disregard throughout its existence. But that is no excuse for the university. The school recently applied the finishing touches to a brand new business school with at least an 8-figure price tag. It should be ashamed that it cannot find adequate funds for the cemetery as well.


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14 responses to “GU Continuing to Disrespect Georgetown’s Irish Forefathers

  1. David Abrams

    Good for you for keeping this in the public eye!

  2. Dizzy

    The school recently applied the finishing touches to a brand new business school with at least an 8-figure price tag. It should be ashamed that it cannot find adequate funds for the cemetery as well.

    The money used to build the business school was donated with the express understanding that it would be used for the business school. It is very difficult to get people to donate money for something like “maintenance of a cemetery.” Hell, several of the university’s oldest and most centrally located buildings are sitting there, unused and/or decaying, because of the impossibility of fundraising the $50+ million it would take to renovate them, strip out the asbestos, etc.

    Then again, maybe if the neighbors weren’t intent on actually shrinking the university and driving it into ever-deeper financial straits, maybe it would have the money for upkeep…

  3. asuka


    Of course, the neighborhood could volunteer to help, but it would much rather whine.

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  6. Box

    More of the “University bad, rich residents good” nonsense .

    Maybe we’ll get more stories that GUTS buses upset the delicate roads of the neighborhood, but G2 and D6 Metrobuses don’t.

  7. Norm

    I am a graduate and supporter of GU and I live in Georgetown. I keep trying to be supportive of GU and the needs of the student body. It is notes like the ones above that drive me insane. GU benefits immensely from tax exemptions (property taxes, etc) and tax free financing. The neighbors are not exempt from taxes nor would an alternative use for the land GU occupies. It is the neighborhood tax payers that fund infrastructure and services in Georgetown and around DC. Why should they not have serious input about how land is used, infrastructure is impacted, and owners keep up their property? I hear a constant refrain about how the residents should go after landlords for renting their homes and not keeping them in good repair.

    One of my favorite refrains is about Georgetown being an economic engine for the area. One could also argue that it is not the highest and best use for the location given the demand to live and work in the Georgetown area. GU is a great economic engine but not necessarily the best.

    GU is already heavily subsidized from a tax perspective and complains of its financial dire straights. Clearly the increase in admissions in the last 10 years have not fixed the problem. How are we to believe that increasing admissions again will make the difference this time?

    That all said, I actually do not have an issue with GU increasing enrollment for grad students and building on the 1789 block to house more students. I really wish people would quit coming on sites like these and leaving insulting messages that reflect a 2 – 4 year view and not the 20+ year view that a lot of the neighbors have.

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  9. Box

    @Norm, who writes that “One could also argue that it is not the highest and best use for the location given the demand to live and work in the Georgetown area.” What, are you suggesting the University relocate the campus to Rockville or something?

  10. Norm

    No. GU is part of the fabric of the community and is an economic driver for the neighborhood. We all know it is not going anywhere. I am simply suggesting that arguments that say GU should be able to do whatever it wants because it is an economic driver for the neighborhood and city might miss the point that other uses of the land might result in greater economic benefit for the city and the neighborhood at a minimum through increased tax revenue. There are times in GU’s history when this was certainly might not have been the case.

    I am open to counter arguments as it might be a pretty hard case for me to prove. I just don’t have access to the information I would need to determine the impact on real estate prices from increasing supply by that amount or put another way what the net affect would be of significantly adding to the property tax and sales tax roles while simultaneously potentially lowering property prices by increasing supply. Either way it is not going to happen but GU does not operate in a vacuum where it creates nothing but economic benefit at no cost to the city.

  11. Box

    What are the other uses of the land that you keep referring to?

  12. Anonymous, please: "Nemo"

    Lest we forget, Georgetown College was founded in 1789, at the far western edge of the village. Its campus boundaries were largely complete by the time of the Civil War. Anyone who bought a home in Georgetown after that date has limited bitching rights. Having said that, anyone who has been on GU’s campus in recent years can see that it is serously overbuilt and overcrowded. From a friend of the university here’s some well-intentioned advice: it’s time to freeze enrollments. Either that or build a satellite campus, or maybe move the Grad School downtown, like the Law School.

  13. JoAnn Robinson

    Somehow, this argument has strayed from the neglect of the cemetary to the supposed needs of the school vs. the neighborhood. As a descendent of family members that are buried there, I can say wholeheartedly that the property IS a disgrace and so is the church for allowing the vandalism and state of disrepair to continue. When my (Irish catholic) grandmother was still living, I took her to Holy Rood for a visit. We climbed the hill, stepping over broken beer bottles and crumbling tombstones in a vain attempt to locate the grave of her infant son, who is buried there.
    It was a very sad day, indeed.

  14. Kurt

    I understand this was a St. Patrick’s Day post and it was acknowledged that others were buried there. But for clarification, Holy Rood Cemetery is not an Irish burial ground. It was the cemetery for Holy Trinity Church, a parish founded by English Catholics. During the period Holy Rood was in greatest use, the parish was largely made up of Catholics of Irish, German or African heritiage.

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