Members of the Gospel Choir from Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Parish in Washington sing at the beginning of an April 28 prayer service and installation of a commemorative plaque honoring enslaved people buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery. (ARCHDIOCESE OF WASHINGTON PHOTOS BY DAPHNE STUBBOLO)
Members of the Gospel Choir from Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Parish in Washington sing at the beginning of an April 28 prayer service and installation of a commemorative plaque honoring enslaved people buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery. (ARCHDIOCESE OF WASHINGTON PHOTOS BY DAPHNE STUBBOLO)

On a morning when sunlight broke through an overcast sky, the lives of people too often forgotten were remembered, as a memorial bronze plaque honoring enslaved men and women was installed at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, near where some had been buried in unmarked graves after the cemetery opened in 1858.

Welcoming people to the April 28 prayer service and installation ceremony, Msgr. Charles Pope – the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Parish in Washington – said,” We have a debt of honor…a debt of recognition and remembrance” to offer that day.

The ceremony opened with about a dozen members of the parish’s Gospel Choir singing the spiritual, “Shall We Gather at the River?” The priest said Cardinal Donald Wuerl had asked that song be sung at the ceremony, and he noted the lyrics offered a reminder that, “We’re all united as sons and daughters of God in holy Baptism.”

In a February Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Cardinal Wuerl blessed commemorative plaques honoring enslaved people to be installed at the five major cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Washington, saying the time had come to “begin to right a wrong” and correct an unjust failure.

At that Mass, Washington’s archbishop noted in past 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.”

Following the installation of the plaque at Mount Olivet, similar ceremonies and installations were scheduled for May 5 at St. Mary’s Queen of Peace Cemetery in Helen in St. Mary’s County; on May 19 at Resurrection Cemetery in Clinton in Prince George’s County; and on May 12 at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Silver Spring and on May 4 at All Souls Cemetery in Germantown, both in Montgomery County.

Attached to a 2,000-lb. block of southern grey granite, the bronze plaque at Mount Olivet reads: “Dedicated to the Memory of those Unknown who were Enslaved and Buried at this Cemetery and throughout the Archdiocese of Washington.” Lilacs blooming purple flowers surrounded the monument.

Below that inscription is a passage from Wisdom 3:1 that formed part of the opening Scripture reading at the prayer service: “The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them.”

In remarks at the ceremony, Msgr. Pope – who now serves as the dean for the Northeast Washington deanery of parishes – noted that when he was a young priest, an elderly African American woman told him about ancestors who had been enslaved in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. When he called them slaves, she corrected him.

“She said they had been enslaved, (but) they were always free children of God,” the priest remembered, adding, “We’re all God’s children at the end of the day. That, he added, is “our greatest title.”

The pastor noted the importance of that day’s ceremony and the memorial installed there. “We owe a debt of recognition for those who don’t have (grave) markers, but who are known by God. God has always known them and loved them,” he said.

Praising the spiritual legacy of those enslaved people, Msgr. Pope noted that they “suffered the terrible ravages of slavery. Still they called on the Lord… They endured those injustices but kept the faith.”

The memorial plaque’s location, surrounded by a field of green grass where enslaved and poor African Americans had been buried over the years without markers, “is a place of honor,” the priest said, adding, “We remember those whom God never forgot.”

Noting that the cardinal had already blessed the plaque, Msgr. Pope offered prayers to dedicate the monument there, and sprinkled holy water on the site and the 60 people who gathered there, as the choir sang the spiritual, “Wade in the Water.”

After people prayed the Our Father together, the priest offered a closing prayer to God honoring the enslaved people memorialized on the marker and buried there: “You’ve wiped every tear from their eyes and welcomed them home,” he said. “Help us endure injustice, when possible fight it, and give our lives to you.”

Sandra Coles-Bell, the program director for the Archdiocese of Washington’s Office of Cultural Diversity and Outreach, handed out 24 long-stemmed white carnations to the children and adults participating in the ceremony, who then placed them on the ground before the memorial, while the choir and people sang the hymn, “Jesus Remember Me.”

Before the ceremony, she reflected on what that day’s installation of the memorial plaque honoring the enslaved people buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery meant to her.

“When I see the sun shining on this, I am overjoyed and overwhelmed,” she said, praising that acknowledgement of African American Catholic history.

Speaking of the legacy of those enslaved men, women and children honored by the commemorative plaques, she said, “If you take a look at the generations that have followed them and stayed steadfast witnesses to our Catholic faith, that’s what their legacy is. We are their legacy.”

Earlier that morning, John Spalding, the president and chief executive officer of Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Washington, noted that Mount Olivet Cemetery since its founding 160 years ago had been open to all people, regardless of race or religious affiliation. But he noted that in earlier eras of segregation, the cemetery was likewise segregated, with whites and blacks buried in different sections.

Walking in the part of the cemetery where the memorial plaque had been erected, he said, “This whole area has graves for enslaved and poor African Americans. The majority are not marked.”

From that vantage point, one can see a panoramic view of the skyline of Northeast Washington, including the National Shrine’s dome and Knight’s Tower, and across Bladensburg Road is the National Arboretum.

Speaking of the importance of honoring the enslaved people buried there, Spalding said, “It gives us a chance to recognize them and their contributions to our community, to embrace them as part of our family and to move forward healing in our Catholic community.”

Spalding said that after their loved ones had received a Christian burial there, those too poor to afford a marker instead planted hardy yucca plants or placed cedar posts or river rocks at the gravesites.

Enslaved and free people of color helped build national landmarks like the U.S. Capitol and White House, Spalding noted, adding that there is a misconception that they were only field hands at area farms and plantations, but they were also skilled artisans and builders.

But he added that those enslaved people also built something else – a foundation of faith that has endured in the generations of descendants who followed them.

“To think how they endured, with all that was taken from them, to still hold in their hearts the promises of Christ and their faith,” he said. “These people that suffered the loss of their freedom found consolation in their faith and passed it on.  They’re true role models for all Catholics.”

The memorial at Mount Olivet Cemetery will stand at the entrance of a prayer garden scheduled to be built over the next two years.

On a day when the lives of often forgotten enslaved people were honored with a permanent monument at that historic cemetery and their holy lives were remembered in the holy ground where they were laid to rest, Spalding said, “To me, it’s unifying our family.”