Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Bowie, Maryland, was once White Marsh Plantation. One of five large Jesuit-owned slave plantations in the state and now a place of worship, its members embody a faith that seeks to understand its past and to give it a fitting memorial — rather than bury it.
They know where the bodies are buried. Behind Sacred Heart Chapel and adjacent to a cemetery that dates to the 1700s is a field. Hundreds of unmarked graves, many of which are believed to be the bodies of enslaved African Americans, were discovered last year.
Today, there are brightly colored flags that serve as temporary markers and signs to ensure that visitors know that this is a sacred place. You can’t miss them and that’s the point. Without knowing the full story or even all their names, the church decided that it was best to keep digging.
“We knew there were burials in the woods,” Michael Russo, parochial vicar priest at Sacred Heart, told John Domen at WTOP news. “What we found were hundreds more burials than we thought would be there. Then they kept going in multiple different directions, and we decided we have to keep looking.”
It goes back generations to include the ancestors of Kevin Porter. Using DNA evidence and historical archives, he discovered that the remains of his great-grandfather five times removed are buried there.
“We can’t really make up for the evil of slavery that happened here, but the church’s role is always to identify sin, call out sin and to atone for it,” Russo told Breana Ross, a reporter for WBAL-TV 11, earlier this year.
Rob Hayes, a member of the cemetery and history committees, says the aim is to give those who were formerly enslaved a proper burial. An expression of their faith, it is a show of solidarity – communio sanctorum, koinonia agion or “the communion of the saints.”
The community rallied around, volunteering to help with the clean-up of decades-old brush. We are all in this together now.
The story hits really close to home, 1.1 miles to be exact. Abolished in 1864, Maryland had been a slave state, and there is much to atone for. Plantations turned wedding venues do not count in my book.
It is believed that there were approximately 46,300 slave plantations in the United States. According to the National Humanities Center, each estate held at least 20 or more people in chattel slavery.
“The Jesuits owned five large estates in Maryland totaling around 12,000 acres: St. Inigoes and Newtown Manor in St. Mary’s County; St. Thomas Manor in Charles County; White Marsh Manor in Prince George’s County; and Bohemia in Cecil County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore,” wrote Stephanie A.T. Jacobe for Catholic Standard. “The last of the plantations, White Marsh in Prince George’s County, was given to the Jesuits as a bequest in 1729 by James Carroll, Archbishop John Carroll’s cousin.”
With old headstones still protruding from the ground, there’s no way to get around this history. “Almost all of them are places where people were enslaved, and this is what essentially (supported) the growth of the Catholic church financially,” Laura Masur, an archaeologist at Catholic University of America who studies these plantations, said.
One evening, I drove up to the chapel to get a closer look and to take pictures of the memorial, but Mary Lee, a member of the church, had other plans. She said she felt compelled by the Holy Spirit to introduce herself to me and then to Rob, who showed me where the old burial plots had been discovered.
I struggled to follow what he was saying and in his footsteps. I didn’t want to get too close to the burial ground, which was already disturbed, as was this picture with the chapel as the backdrop.
A high-functioning introvert, this was supposed to be a solo venture. Instead, I ended up following Rob and Mary Lee into the chapel for a worship service, The Stations of the Cross.
“Are you Catholic?” they asked. “No, I’m an ecumenist. I go where the Spirit blows,” I replied.
Afterwards, Mary Lee introduced me to Father Michael and as we reached out to shake hands, a strong wind blew. I nearly lost my baseball cap, but once I recovered, I immediately thought of Mary Lee’s words.
It was the Holy Spirit and the reminder I needed that faith seeking understanding didn’t leave something like this dead and buried.