On February 1, Holy Trinity Catholic Church welcomed the Citizens of Georgetown Association to celebrate Black History Month. Parishioners and HT History Committee members Paul Maco, Bernard Cook, and Peter Albert spoke about Holy Trinity’s early history and named Black parishioners instrumental to our Catholic identity then and today. Remarks from Paul, Bernie and Peter are shared here. You may view the entire program on our website.
Our History Group – How We Came to Be and Why
Good evening and thank you Neville and the Citizens Association of Georgetown for inviting us to participate in this evening’s program.
Holy Trinity was established in 1787. That was not an isolated event, but incident to a larger one. As one historian put it, Trinity, as it was then called, was “born in the shadow and of the substance of Georgetown College.” Both enterprises were the work of a small group of priests, former and soon to be again Jesuits. That small group – nineteen of the twenty-one Catholic priests then in the United States – resided in Maryland on several manors or plantation from which they ministered to Catholics and proselytized the indigenous people in the greater region. Those manors and plantations grew tobacco and financially supported the efforts of the priests. Initially their workers were indentured servants whose labor repaid the cost of their voyage from England. Indentured servants were soon replaced by enslaved Black people, who by 1790 numbered 323.
So our history – Trinity’s history – is entwined with enslavement. The first history of Trinity did not mention this at all. The second, William Warner’s At Peace With All Their Neighbors, does to some degree, and says that from the outset that free and enslaved Blacks constituted 30% of our congregation. However, he tells us little of the lives of our Black parishioners between our early days and the exodus of our Black parishioners to Epiphany Church in the mid-1920s and nothing thereafter. And, aside from the reconciliation service with Epiphany in April 1994, our parish paid little attention to the subject of race until our 225th anniversary when a group of our parishioners known as the 225 History Group produced a series of articles collectively called A Pilgrimage to Our Past: among them Slavery & Holy Trinity, relating Trinity’s early years and the lives and significant contributions of its Black members, and another on the integration of our grade school in 1953, for which Ms Adele Dodson graciously shared her experiences: Memories of Black Georgetown: A Conversation with Adele Dodson, Holy Trinity School’s First Black Student.
Two years later, in the summer of George Floyd, our Restorative Justice Group proposed several projects on racial healing, one of which was the study of slavery, segregation, and race in our parish. Ashley Klick, our Pastoral Assistant for Social Justice, agreed to form a history group. Several members of the 225 History Group joined in, including Bernard Cook, who you will hear in a few moments. Others in the parish soon joined us, among them Peter Albert, who you will also hear shortly. Our first articles were posted in November 2020, coinciding with the Archdiocese of Washington celebration of National Catholic Black History Month. The first articles were by Peter Albert The Founding of Epiphany Catholic Church (1923-25), A 1960 Account by Gertrude Turner Waters of the Founding of Epiphany Roman Catholic Church, and\The Reconciliation Service for Holy Trinity and Epiphany Parishioners (1994). These were followed by The Butler Sisters, by Bernard Cook. Among the acknowledgments in Peter’s article is his thanks to Dorothy Harris Gray, Linda L. Gray, and April Lynn Bowler of Epiphany Church for their generous assistance with the research for documentation. Others, Neville among them, have likewise been generous in sharing family records and memorabilia critical to our work. You may find our articles – 22 to date -- on Holy Trinity’s website, trinity.org, by clicking on “About” and then on “Holy Trinity History.”
So why are we doing this? Our purpose is to provide a source of education -- to our parishioners and others -- about the role of slavery, segregation, and race in Holy Trinity’s history. We hope that, in throwing light on our parish’s past, our work will open doors to reflection on that past as well as its implications for -- and better understanding of -- our present, and inspire our daily interactions with each other.
Our efforts are being put to good use, for example, on Good Friday April 2, 2021, Fr. Gillespie’s reading out of the names of our enslaved Black parishioners buried in unmarked graves at Holy Rood. In the following year a pilgrimage starting at Holy Rood, with prayers, readings, and the naming of the enslaved and free Black parishioners buried there, and ending here in this church where pilgrims could contemplate the crowded balconies behind you – the architectural embodiment of Jim Crow – and reflect on the exodus to Epiphany.
Most rewarding to us is the growing connection and collaboration in research into Black Catholic family histories with members of Epiphany, St. Augustine’s, and descendants of our Black former parishioners. Our monthly meetings now greatly benefit from the participation of the Grays, Laurice Redhead, Dena Grant and Sybil Williams, two historians from St. Augustine’s, and Father Ray Kemp. And we are most grateful for your invitation to us for this evening. I now turn you over to Bernard Cook followed by Peter Albert who will share more about our work.
1 William Warner, At Peace With All Their Neighbors, p. ix, x
The Butlers and Anne Marie Becraft
While we acknowledge that Holy Trinity’s priests and white parishioners were guilty of racism, we celebrate Black parishioners, who enriched our early parish life.
Among Holy Trinity’s exemplary parishioners were Lucy and Liddy Butler and Anne Marie Becraft.
Lucy and Liddy Butler and many other Butlers were members of the parish from its earliest years. The Butler family had won their freedom after protracted litigation. Lucy and Liddy Butler were apparently great granddaughters of Eleanor, “Irish Nell,” an indentured servant, who had married Charles Butler, an enslaved man in a Catholic ceremony in 1681. Members of the Butler family petitioned the Maryland Court of Appeals for their freedom on the basis that their great grandmother was a free White woman. After protracted litigation, the Court granted their appeals.
One historian has written that Lucy and Liddy Butler “did more to bring together a strongly committed black Catholic community than the combined efforts of the church itself or the white laity.” During the parish’s first quarter century the two sisters served as godmothers to 65 of the Black children, enslaved and free, baptized in the parish. That number, 65, amounted to approximately one out of three of the Baptisms of Black children at Holy Trinity during that time. The role of godmother was particularly important among enslaved Catholic African-Americans. If parents were separated from their children through sale, the godmother would assume the role of emotional support and guidance for the godchild.
Lucy Butler died on November 25, 1821, and was buried the next day on Georgetown’s campus. Liddy Butler, who died on January 28, 1834, at the age of 80, was buried at Holy Rood. Sixteen other Butlers, between the ages of 6 months and 86, were buried from Holy Trinity between 1834 and 1866. Only one was enslaved.
Anne Marie Becraft was the oldest child of William and Sarah Becraft, free African Americans. Her grandmother, reputedly, was a free woman who worked in the household of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a cousin of Bishop John Carroll, the founder of Georgetown University.
William Becraft, born on Carroll’s estate, lived in Georgetown and became the chief steward at the Union Hotel. Anne Becraft’s mother, Sarah, who died at the age of 70 in 1866, was buried in Holy Rood.
In 1824, when Anne Becraft was 15 she, with financial support from Black Catholics, opened a school for female Black children in Georgetown. The school was first located on Dunbarton Street, but in 1827 with the support of the Sisters of Visitation and Fr. John Van Lommel at Holy Trinity, the school relocated across the street from Visitation. Anne Marie Becraft ran the school, which had an average of 35 boarder and day-school students.
Anne Marie was active at Holy Trinity parish as well. She served as godmother to at least three children and sewed altar cloths and vestments for the parish.
Anne Marie, after preparing her successor, left her school in the fall of 1831 to join the Oblate Sisters of Providence, an order of African American nuns in Baltimore, and took the name Sister Mary Aloysius in honor of the Jesuit saint. Anne Marie, who had long suffered from what was described as “a chest ailment,” entered the convent’s infirmary in 1833, where she died in December.
Her school as well as a school for African American boys which Fr. Van Lommel had established in a small house near Holy Trinity did not survive the heightened racial tensions following Nat Turner’s 1831 uprising in Virginia.
The oldest building on the campus of Georgetown University was re-named Becraft Hall in 2017. It had previously been named for Fr. William McSherry, the Jesuit Provincial who oversaw the sale of 272 people enslaved by the Jesuits to plantation owners in southern Louisiana. We look back to Liddy and Lucy Butler and Anne Marie Becraft with gratitude but also with sadness at the indignities that they and our Black sisters and brothers suffered at our hands.
2 Holy Trinity Church Deaths, 1818-1867, p. 10. DigitalGeorgetown,
Manuscripts Collection, Georgetown University Library, Booth Family Center for Special Collections, http://hdl.handle.net/10822/557000
Neville Waters asked us to bring to mind tonight some of the Black parishioners who worshiped at Holy Trinity in the old days. How many there were! Trinity was over 40% Black in the 1830s; there were some 700 Black parishioners here in the 1870s. “So many thousand gone,” the spiritual says. Let us remember them here, where their memory surrounds us – “a great cloud of witnesses.”
From 1851, when it was dedicated, down to the 1920s, when the Black congregation left Holy Trinity to form Epiphany parish, this church was a segregated space. Picture it just after the Civil War. 138 pews on the main floor for White folks. 42 upstairs for Black people, in two long balconies (now gone) along the sides of the church and a small balcony in back. In your imagination, climb the stairs, as they had to. Meet some of them.
Sitting in the balcony in back was Caroline Becraft. The Becrafts rented a pew at Holy Trinity for nearly 40 years. William Becraft, Anne Marie’s and Caroline’s father, rented a pew in our original church, now the Chapel of St. Ignatius on N Street, as early as 1831. He had a pew here in the main church from 1851 down to 1860. Caroline then rented a pew until 1868. A dressmaker, she lived on what’s now O Street, but back then was Beall Street.
Lucian Jones, freed in 1862 by DC’s emancipation act, rented that same pew from 1868 to 1871, paying his pew rent by pumping the bellows for the church organ. Living on what’s now Wisconsin Avenue, but back then was High Street, he was a teamster. Others emancipated in 1862 also rented pews in our segregated balconies for themselves and their families. Caroline Gray from 1854 to 1865. Harriet Williams in 1862. Winny Coates from 1853 to 1871. Hester Solomon from 1860 to 1875. Ann Carter from 1874 to 1876. Ignatius Tilghman from 1857 to 1875. Freed with his family by the nuns at Visitation, Tilghman worked as a laborer. His son escaped slavery to join the Union army.
Hester Solomon and her family sat in a pew up here on my right. The Tilghmans sat in the pew in front of her. Winny Coates and her family sat next to the Tilghmans. They could look down and see some of those who were or had been their enslavers in the pews below them, on the main floor of the church. Their enslavers were reimbursed for emancipating them. The enslaved received no compensation for their time of servitude.
Of course, from the founding of the parish, many free Black Catholics worshiped at Trinity. Many sat in these balconies. Bernie has mentioned the Becraft and Butler families. The Belt family were parishioners here for four generations. They lived a block from the church up 36th Street. Mary Belt rented a pew from 1853 to 1855, her sister-in-law Martha from 1864 to 1865. You can see Martha Belt’s headstone, and her husband’s, and her son’s, at Holy Rood Cemetery.
Lucy Coakley’s large family had two pews next to the Tilghmans – and here I want to thank Sybil Templeman Williams at St. Augustine’s who shared with me her rich trove of information on the Coakleys. A vendor at Georgetown Market, Lucy Coakley had a pew in the original church from 1842 on, and in the main church from 1851 to 1876. Her daughter Frances rented a pew in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Lucy Coakley married at Trinity in 1824, and baptized at least eight of her children here. Four, Magdalen, Frances, Cecilia, and Martha, were dressmakers. Two, Richard and William, fought in the Civil War. Two, Magdalen and Philip, were founders of St. Augustine’s.
We remember tonight the Black parishioners who sat in these balconies—some enslaved and others free, some alone and others with families, some here for a short time and others for decades. Let us remember their names. Let us remember their lives.