Cardinal Wuerl Blesses Memorial Markers That Honor Unknown Enslaved Buried in Archdiocese of Washington

WASHINGTON, D.C. – During Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Saturday evening, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington blessed memorial markers honoring the unknown enslaved men, women and children who are buried in cemeteries which are now within the Archdiocese of Washington. As part of the archdiocese’s ongoing dialogue and reconciliation efforts to serve as witnesses to the unity of God’s family and to acknowledge the sin of enslavement in the Washington, D.C. region, the markers will be installed at archdiocesan cemeteries after they are blessed.

In November 2017 Cardinal Wuerl issued a pastoral letter, The Challenge of Racism Today, in which he called for unity among all people to confront the “persistent evil of racism.” At that time, the cardinal said the pastoral letter was not intended to be the final word, but rather, what he hoped would be the start of robust dialogue that guides us toward reconciliation.

“While it is true that all of us are equal in our desire someday to reach God and that all of us are equal in death before God, it does not seem to be true that everyone received equal remembrance once they died and were buried,” said Cardinal Wuerl as he began his homily. “We have gathered today to begin to right a wrong and correct a failure – a serious and unjust failure. 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.”

“Before us are markers that commemorate brothers and sisters in the faith who died while held in the bondage of slavery,” Cardinal Wuerl said. “In this 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 Gospel reading, the Cardinal said, reminds man of the possibility and hope of everlasting life. “Our Catholic faith urges us to profess our belief in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come,” Cardinal Wuerl said. “Our funerals reflect that belief. So should our burial sites.”

Cardinal Wuerl reechoed his desire for the Church and all people to work together to eliminate the evil of racism. “Intolerance and racism will not go away without a concerted awareness and effort on everyone’s part. Regularly we must renew the commitment to drive it out of our hearts, our lives and our community,” he said. “In this process, we need to go forward in the light of faith, embracing all of those around us, realizing that those wounded by the sin of racism should never be forgotten. At the same time, we acknowledge the witness of African-American Catholics who through eras of enslavement, segregation and societal racism have remained steadfastly faithful.”

“May these cemetery memorial markers be not only a reminder of those who in the past were buried without recognition but also a visible indication of our commitment as we go into the future,” Cardinal Wuerl said. “We renew, once again, our pledge to strengthen our efforts to live that communion of faith and love.”

After the homily, the cardinal blessed the memorials and sprinkled holy water over them:

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. May prayers be offered continually in supplication for those who sleep in Christ and in constant praise of your mercy. We ask this through Christ our Lord.

The Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Washington presently consists of five major cemeteries and two minor cemeteries, as well as more than forty parish cemeteries. Founded in 1858, Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington is the only archdiocesan cemetery with known graves of enslaved peoples. The four other archdiocesan cemeteries were established after the abolition of slavery, but will also feature the markers to honor the unnamed enslaved of the region. A number of parish cemeteries in the archdiocese that date back to the time of the first settlers will also be able to place similar memorial markers on their properties.