BOWIE, Md. — On Feb. 25, just following a snow flurry that morning, a tent with seats for about 100 people was put up among gravesites on the property behind Sacred Heart Parish’s chapel in the Washington suburb of Bowie for an afternoon prayer service honoring the departed.
Those in attendance, including more than 100 people standing outside the tent, gathered near a field and a hillside that were dotted with little pink and orange flags that represent an anomaly, stones or possibly grave markers discovered by archaeological research since the new year began.
Previously, the property was on one of the plantations owned by members of the Society of Jesus in Maryland in the 1700s and 1800s, and enslaved people who worked at that plantation may be buried in unmarked graves on the grounds of the parish cemetery.
Washington Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory led the service, which was attended by members of the parish and community, as well as descendants of the area’s enslaved. Descendants wore small black ribbons pinned to their coats that read, “Forever in our hearts.”
Members of the Washington archdiocesan Gospel Mass Choir began the event by singing “Amazing Grace.” In his homily, Cardinal Gregory explained the significance of the prayer service, and how there is still work ahead to acknowledge the history of the Catholic Church’s involvement in slavery.
He noted that day’s reading from the Gospel of St. John included the word “loss,” which is often associated with death. But he pointed out that “Jesus told us that He was sent so that no one would be lost.”
“What we are doing today is helping give life to those Gospel words. We are trying to, to the best of our ability, allow the people whose lives were bound up in slavery and whose death mattered little to those who survive them, we are trying to make sure that their lives are not lost, but more importantly, that their memories are not lost,” Cardinal Gregory said.
Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori participated in the prayer service, along with members of the clergy.
Before the prayer service, Cardinal Gregory and Church and parish representatives had a private meeting with descendants and community members.
In his homily, the cardinal noted, “Today, a lot of us who came to hear the conversations that took place in the chapel were reminded in vivid language that there is a lot of work that needs to be done so that the lives and the identity and the dignity of the people who were once in shackles will be held in honor by those of us who remain.”
Concluding his homily, Cardinal Gregory said, “Jesus said He came so that none of those who were given to Him would be lost. We believe that, and we will continue to work to make sure that those people in this ground and in other grounds, once owned by the Church, once held slaves by the Church, will not be forgotten, overlooked, or neglected, and none of them will be lost.”
Following the homily, the cardinal went to bless the gravesites with holy water
Also attending the prayer service was Jesuit Father Timothy Kesicki, who works with the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States and directs the campaign for the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation. He said he first met descendants of those enslaved by Jesuits in 2017 when he was president of the conference.
He said that events like the prayer service are an important component in understanding the emotional history of the enslaved.
“The more proximate you are to history, and in the presence of living descendants, it grounds us in what happened,” Father Kesicki said. “Many of the injustices that still plague us as a nation are connected to this history. So how is this history informing our understanding of mercy, equality, justice – all these very rich Catholic virtues?”
Following the service, attendees walked around the property and visited both the visible and unconfirmed gravesites.