At a Feb. 3 Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl blesses memorial plaques honoring enslaved men, women and children buried throughout the Archdiocese of Washington, which includes the nation’s capital and the five surrounding Maryland counties. ARCHDIOCESE OF WASHINGTON PHOTO BY DAPHNE STUBBOLO
At a Feb. 3 Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl blesses memorial plaques honoring enslaved men, women and children buried throughout the Archdiocese of Washington, which includes the nation’s capital and the five surrounding Maryland counties. ARCHDIOCESE OF WASHINGTON PHOTO BY DAPHNE STUBBOLO
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Saying the time had come to “right a wrong,” Cardinal Donald Wuerl at a Feb. 3 Mass blessed and dedicated commemorative bronze plaques honoring unknown enslaved men, women and children buried throughout the Archdiocese of Washington.

Washington’s archbishop sprinkled holy water on the plaques, which were temporarily placed in the lower sanctuary of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception during the Mass.

“We have gathered today to begin to right a wrong and correct a failure – a serious and unjust failure,” the cardinal said in his homily. “It seems that over decades and decades, not to say centuries, our brothers and sisters in the faith who were enslaved, who lived in human bondage, were treated with the same inequity at their burial. Many received no public marker… what we have come here to do today is to see that here and now all are properly remembered.”

The inscription on the plaques reads: “Dedicated to the memory of those unknown who were enslaved and buried throughout the Archdiocese of Washington.” The top of each plaque has an image of Christ crucified on the cross, and the bottom includes a quotation from Wisdom 3:1: “The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them.”

By this spring, the plaques will be placed in the archdiocese’s five major cemeteries: Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington; St. Mary’s Queen of Peace Cemetery in Helen in St. Mary’s County; Resurrection Cemetery in Clinton in Prince George’s County; and in Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Silver Spring and All Souls Cemetery in Germantown, both in Montgomery County. The archdiocese includes Washington, D.C., and the five surrounding Maryland counties.

The wording for the plaque for Mount Olivet Cemetery is slightly different, noting “…those unknown who were enslaved and who are buried in this cemetery…” Mount Olivet Cemetery, founded in 1858, was racially integrated from its beginning and was one of the first in Washington, D.C., to be integrated.

The Mass opened with the St. Augustine Gospel Choir singing the spiritual, “We’ve Come this Far by Faith.” St. Augustine Parish – the mother church for African-American Catholics in the nation’s capital – was founded in 1858 by free men and women of color, including some who were emancipated from slavery. The gospel choir sang at the 2015 White House welcome to Pope Francis hosted by then-President Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president.

Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy Campbell Jr., who is African-American, welcomed people to the Mass and said that the enslaved men and women who had once been buried in unknown, forgotten graves “will now be honored in death, with the Christian and human dignity that they were not afforded during their lifetimes.”

The bishop said the Mass would honor “those who labored in obscurity and died in unjust servitude,” and he expressed gratitude toward those who had come to the liturgy “for being a part of our recognition of the past, and being a part of our commitment to the healing and recognition of the human dignity of all of God’s children, today and all of our tomorrows.”

About 600 people attended the Mass. Cardinal Wuerl was the main celebrant, joined by Bishop Campbell and by Washington Auxiliary Bishop Mario Dorsonville and by six priests.

In his homily, Cardinal Wuerl said blessing the plaques offered a “simple gesture and solemn moment.”

“We make a visible and permanent declaration that, in ground made holy by their remains as a temple of the Holy Spirit, we mark and remember them,” the cardinal said.

Catholic funerals and burial sites, he said, reflect “our belief in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” He added that Catholic cemeteries “provide us with holy ground where we can, with some regularity, remember our dead, recall their goodness to us and ask God’s blessing on them.”

With that understanding, he said the Church of Washington had gathered that day as the markers were blessed in recognition that, “With this marker, in whatever cemetery it stands, we recognize that somewhere in this burial space are the remains of brothers and sisters. With this memorial, we honor their memory.”

Cardinal Wuerl then said, “May our presence say loudly that this is one small effort to right what was a very great wrong.”

Washington’s archbishop then quoted from his November 2017 pastoral letter, The Challenge of Racism Today, saying, “Today we need to acknowledge past sins of racism and, in a spirit of reconciliation, move toward a Church and society where the wounds of racism are healed.”

Reflecting on the urgency of that task to rid racism from people’s hearts and communities, the cardinal in his homily said, “Each step forward we take is a step that the next generation – your children and their children – will not have to take again.”

Those wounded by the sin of racism should never be forgotten, he said, encouraging  people to be guided by the light of faith and to embrace all those around them.

Cardinal Wuerl then praised the witness of faith of generations of “African-American Catholics who kept the faith through eras of enslavement, segregation and societal racism,” and who remained “steadfastly faithful” to the Lord, his Church and his Creed.

That remark drew applause from the congregation, which included people of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. Some African-American Catholics seated in a front section of the basilica wore kente-cloth sashes to reflect their African ancestry.

“In Christ, we are brothers and sisters to one another,” the cardinal said, noting that people in their shared earthly pilgrimage to heaven, should move forward together with faith in God’s grace, with hope and determination, “and above all with love for each other as children of God,” recognizing “in Baptism, in Christ’s Church, we are all brothers and sisters.”

Blessing the markers, he said, not only involved honoring those from the past, but also looking to the future.

“We renew, once again, our pledge to strengthen our efforts to live that communion of faith and love,” the cardinal said. “We affirm our common heritage in Baptism and the call to live it out in a solidarity of respect, equality and dignity.”

Moments later as he blessed the memorial markers, Cardinal Wuerl prayed, “Grant that these stones, placed in memorial of those who suffered in terrible bondage, may, by the power of your blessing, mark a place of rest and hope. May the bodies buried beneath these stones sleep in your peace, to rise immortal at the coming of your Son. May these stones mark a place of comfort to the living, a sign of their hope for unending life.”

Later after the people at the Mass recited the Creed together, a prayer was offered for “those who have died, especially for those who have suffered the injustice of slavery, may (they) know the peace and happiness of God’s kingdom with the saints in heaven.”

The Mass was celebrated at the National Shrine – the largest Catholic church in the United States. High above where the plaques were blessed, the basilica’s recently dedicated Trinity Dome Mosaic has a procession of saints surrounding the Holy Trinity and Mary, including St. Josephine Bakhita, a former slave from the Sudan who is a special patroness for efforts to end human trafficking, which has been called a modern-day form of slavery.

The Communion meditation hymn at the Mass was “Shall We Gather at the River?,” which Cardinal Wuerl noted in his homily is “a song of worship and hope” that “draws its inspiration from the coming together on Sundays of slave families for worship and community fellowship.”

In an earlier interview, John Spalding, the president and CEO of Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Washington, reflected on the significance of the cardinal blessing the memorial plaques, saying it is important to remember and honor these enslaved people.

“It was their labor and sacrifice that laid the foundation for this country, with no gain” to them, Spalding said. Slave labor and that of emancipated African-Americans helped build the White House and U.S. Capitol and many other noted Washington landmarks and institutions, including Georgetown University, which this past spring held a prayer service to express public contrition over the Maryland Society of Jesus’s 1838 sale of 272 enslaved women, children and men to benefit the university, which was then in financial difficulty. Georgetown renamed one of its campus buildings Isaac Hawkins Hall after the name of the first enslaved person listed on that bill of sale.

Spalding noted that the plaques will be installed on granite blocks in each of the five cemeteries in a well-traveled location where people can prayerfully reflect on the enslaved women and men buried throughout the archdiocese.

“They’re also part of our Catholic family, who embraced Christ and his redemption even while they were enslaved, and their faith never faltered,” said Spalding. “It’s a small tribute to acknowledge their existence, their sacrifice and their unwavering faith.”

Sandra Coles-Bell, the program director for the Archdiocese of Washington’s Office of Cultural Diversity and Outreach, said in an earlier interview that the blessing and placing of the memorial plaques in the Catholic cemeteries “provides the archdiocese the opportunity to recognize the sin of slavery and racism, as was done in Cardinal Wuerl’s pastoral letter, The Challenge of Racism Today, and to provide a dignity and honor to those Catholics who worked and prayed to the same God that you and I do.”

After the Mass, Bishop Campbell said the ceremony offered a way for the Church to remember those who suffered in slavery, “to recognize what happened was sinful and to say it was wrong… and to do all we can to stop racism today.”

As he processed from the altar, Cardinal Wuerl stopped to greet and embrace some African-American members of the congregation.

Afterward, Christine Tolson from St. Luke Parish in Washington said she appreciated the respect shown for “the lives of those people who came before us. That’s why I came, to remember them.”

Claudia Thorne from St. Augustine Parish praised the Church’s effort to acknowledge the sin of slavery and to work to heal society of the sin of racism, calling it “a huge step… The Church is always telling us to acknowledge our sins and seek reconciliation.”

She praised the unwavering faith of the ancestors of today’s African-American Catholics, who even while enslaved, had “unwavering faith in God.”

“We stand on their shoulders,” Thorne said.

That point was echoed by Evelyn Quander Rattley, 93, a member of St. Benedict the Moor Parish in Washington, who said, “We would not have made it if it would not have been for our ancestors and their faith. They never gave up. In spite of everything, they prayed and thanked the Lord. That is what has brought us this far today. This beautiful faith in the Lord is what sustains us.”

Thelma Adams, a member of Holy Family Parish in Hillcrest Heights who is president of Sisters of the Spirit – a group formed for African-American Catholic women 15 years ago that now has members from many different ethnic backgrounds – said it was “a milestone” for the archdiocese to “right a wrong” by recognizing the humanity and dignity of those enslaved ancestors.

“I believe they are like you and me, children of God, and they had God in them to sustain them,” she said. “…It’s just a wonderful feeling that they’re remembered, and they must be smiling down at us from heaven, to finally be recognized.”