By Mark Zimmermann Catholic News Service
ST. INIGOES, Md. (CNS) -- When Washington Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory blessed a parish cemetery's memorial plaque honoring the unknown enslaved people buried there, Nov. 26, he noted the poignancy of his participation in the service at St. Peter Claver Parish in St. Inigoes.
"I can't help but think that the many people buried here without a marker had to wait for an African American cardinal to bless that memorial honoring them," he said as dozens of people of different backgrounds and ages gathered around him to join in the prayer service held at the parish first established as a mission in the early 1900s for Black Catholics in that region who had experienced segregation at a nearby Catholic church.
The inscription on the bronze plaque reads: "Dedicated to the memory of those unknown who were enslaved and buried in the Archdiocese of Washington." The top of the 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."
Cardinal Gregory, who became the first African American cardinal in 2020, read the prayers of blessing in an emotional voice as the people around him bowed their heads in prayer while standing on the grounds of the rural Southern Maryland parish.
"Brothers and sisters in Christ, a common Christian concern has brought us together to bless this memorial stone, which will mark the places in which the bodies of those who suffered the pain and injustice of slavery lie at rest, awaiting the dawn of the Lord's coming in glory … May this stone be a sign of comfort to the living descendants of those buried here and a sign of their hope for unending life for their ancestors," the cardinal prayed before sprinkling the marker with holy water.
After the service, he told the Catholic Standard, archdiocesan newspaper of Washington, that it was "terribly emotional to be able to stand here and bless these graves of former slaves. It put me in touch with my own roots."
He said he has discovered in the Washington Archdiocese, especially in Southern Maryland, "is that the faith that sustained these people was the same strength of faith that sustained the early Christians, because they were suffering. It's the same strength of faith that is present here that was present then."
Before the marker blessing, Cardinal Gregory celebrated a Mass at St. Peter Claver Church, named for the 17th century Spanish Jesuit priest known for his missionary work evangelizing thousands of enslaved Africans in South America.
In 2018, during a Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, then the archbishop of Washington, blessed the first commemorative bronze plaques honoring unknown enslaved men, women and children buried in cemeteries in the Archdiocese of Washington.
Cardinal Wuerl said then that the time had come "to right a wrong" and to remember and honor those people. That spring, those memorial plaques were placed in the archdiocese's five major cemeteries.
In 2017, Georgetown University 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.
The Jesuits at that time had enslaved workers at the religious order's plantations in Maryland who received sacraments as Catholics and kept that faith when some family members were separated after the sale and moved to plantations in Louisiana.
For generations, descendants of those families in Maryland and Louisiana have remained Catholic through periods of slavery, segregation and ongoing racism in society and the Church.
In an email to the Catholic Standard, Lilliam L. Machado, the president and CEO of the archdiocese's Catholic Cemeteries, said files indicate that in 2018, 24 parishes requested that memorial for their cemeteries.
Reflecting on the importance of those memorial markers, Machado added, "Many older parish cemeteries of the Archdiocese have formerly enslaved persons buried in them. The graves of these brothers and sisters in Christ are largely unmarked."
She also noted that memorial markers like the one at the Southern Maryland parish allow parishioners "to reflect on the contributions enslaved persons made to their community and nation despite their great suffering."
"Memorials are powerful reminders of the past," she said. "While they sometimes shine the light of Christ on the sins of mankind, that light always illuminates a path toward necessary dialogue and healing."
In his homily, Cardinal Gregory said: "There are literally thousands of people who rest unidentified in our cemeteries who were slaves and whose identity and names were considered inconsequential and unimportant to record. They may be nameless in local history, but not before God."
The congregation responded "Amen."
He also said they would "pray for those who today are held in the bondage of hatred and contempt for those who may be from another culture, race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. Those dreadful human sentiments are as binding and as confining as were the physical chains once used from an earlier era."
Cardinal Gregory stressed that the marker's blessing was also a time to pray for "freedom from any hatred that constricts the human heart and soul today, so that in time, we might all be free as God's children were always destined to be."
He said the people honored today "are nameless, but in God's kingdom, they have a name."
The congregation responded with a loud "Amen!" and applause.
After the blessing, some people lingered at the cemetery afterward, to stop and pray at the memorial marker and to walk among the graves there where their family members and longtime parishioners were buried.
Bill Merritt, a St. Peter Claver parishioner for 23 years and a Knight of St. Jerome, said the memorial marker was "much needed," and he appreciated the cardinal's message in his homily. "We have to put away the hatred and love each other," he said.
He showed a photo on his cell phone of the tombstone of his great-great-great grandmother named Narcissus, who lived from 1827-1887. He noted that through DNA testing, he found out about her, that she was enslaved and sold to a plantation in North Carolina, and had a daughter born into slavery.
Reflecting on the enslaved people honored that day, Merritt said: "They're the ancestors of this area."
"We need to keep remembering," he said, "because remembering keeps us faithful to where we should be. We have to have history to keep on the path God wants us on."
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Zimmermann is editor of the Catholic Standard, archdiocesan newspaper of Washington.