The Butler Sisters
by Bernard Cook
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This book kept a record of deaths of Holy Trinity parishioners from 1818 to 1867. On page 10 (bottom left), Lucy Butler's death is recorded on November 25, 1821 as "Butler Lucy, a colored woman who died the 25th". On page 57 (bottom right), Liddy Butler's death is recorded on January 28, 1834 as "Lidia Butler, a free colored woman, age 80" and also notes that her burial was "gratis" (free).
African Americans, both enslaved and freed, were members of Holy Trinity parish from its inception. In the early nineteenth century perhaps a third of Holy Trinity’s parishioners were Black. (1) According to Mary Beth Corrigan, “Between 1800 and 1845, blacks accounted for one out of three baptisms and one out of four marriages at Holy Trinity in Georgetown.” (2)
The faith and zeal of Black Holy Trinity parishioners, despite the humiliating disdain to which they were subjected, is admirable. Two freed African American women, Lucy and Liddy Butler, had a significant impact upon the parish during its early years. They, and many other Butlers, were members of the parish from its earliest years. The first free Black, whose marriage was recorded in Trinity’s marriage register, was Edward Butler. He married Bett, an enslaved woman, on May 2, 1797. Their marriage, attended by many parishioners, was witnessed by Susanna and Mary Sewall, and John Carbery. (3)
The Butler family had won their freedom after protracted litigation. Lucy and Liddy Butler were apparently great granddaughters of Eleanor, “Irish Nell,” a white 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. (4)
William Warner writes 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.” (5) During the parish’s first quarter century, the two sisters served as godmothers to 65 of the Black children, both enslaved and free, baptized in the parish.
Lucy Butler died on November 25, 1821 and was buried the next day (6) in the College Ground Cemetery. That burial ground, also known as the Trinity Burial Ground or the Old Burial Ground, was established in 1818. It was located on Georgetown’s campus, about 100 feet north of where Copley Hall stands today. Before burials there ended in 1833, approximately 1,000 Holy Trinity parishioners and persons enslaved by the university were buried there. During the construction of Copley Hall, the disused burial ground was uncovered. Human remains discovered at that time and, in 1953 during further construction at the university, were reinterred at Holy Rood Cemetery or at Olivet Cemetery. Carlton Fletcher believes that 850 bodies were never removed and remain under Red Square and adjacent buildings. (7)
Liddy Butler, who died on January 28, 1834 at the age of 80, was buried in Holy Rood Cemetery, which had been established by Holy Trinity parish two years earlier in 1832. (8) The records of Holy Trinity parish list 500 African Americans, free and enslaved, buried in Holy Rood. (9) However, Carlton Fletcher estimates that the actual number of African Americans buried in segregated sections of Holy Rood is closer to 1,000. (10)
1. William W. Warner, At Peace with All Their Neighbors: Catholics and Catholicism in the National Capital 1787-1860 (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 1994), p. 88.
2. Mary Beth Corrigan, "Making the Most of an Opportunity: Slaves and the Catholic Church in Early Washington" in Washington History, 12 (Spring-Summer 2000), p. 98, citing Margaret H. McAleer, "The Other Congregation: Patterns of Black Catholic Worship at Holy Trinity Church, Georgetown, D.C., 1795-1845" (unpublished seminar paper, Georgetown University, 1986), pp. 14 and 25.
3. Record of Marriages and Baptisms 1795 to 1805, Trinity Church, Georgetown, D.C., p. 175. Georgetown University Archives. Joseph Carbery, a Jesuit, managed the Jesuit estate St. Inigoes in Maryland. Thomas Carbery, a friend of the Jesuits, was president of National Metropolitan Bank and had an estate in what is now the Takoma neighborhood. He was mayor of Washington, 1822-1824.
4. More about the Butler family and Irish Nell may be found in the Maryland State Archives at: msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc5400/sc5496/000500/000534/html/00534bio.html and Aaron, B. Wilkinson, “Blurring the Lines of Race and Freedom: Mulattoes in English Colonial North America and the Early United States Republic,” Doctoral Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 2013, pp. 135 ff., escholarship.org/uc/item/1hv4k2bc
It cannot be determined when Lucy and Lydia Butler gained their freedom. According to “O Say Can You See,” Early Washington D.C. Law and Family Project, one Lucy Butler gained her freedom from Benedict Wheeler of Charles County in 1790, and another Lucy Butler achieved her freedom from James Atwood of Montgomery County in 1792. A Lydia Butler gained her freedom from James Carrico of Charles County in 1790, a second Lydia Butler achieved her freedom from Nicholas Swingle of Washington County in 1792, and a third Lydia Butler filed a freedom suit in 1788 against Anne Digges. earlywashingtondc.org/family-guides/Butler.pdf.
5. William W. Warner, p. 91.
6. Holy Trinity Church Deaths, 1818-1867, p. 10. DigitalGeorgetown,
Manuscripts Collection, Georgetown University Library, Booth Family Center for Special Collections, hdl.handle.net/10822/557000 Accessed October 18, 2020.
7. Carlton Fletcher, "Burial Grounds of Holy Trinity Church, Georgetown, D.C." Newsletter of the Catholic Historical Society of Washington (July–September 2002). gloverparkhistory.com/cemeteries/holy-rood-cemetery/holy-rood-cemetery/; Carlton Fletcher “Glover Park History: Historical Sketches of Glover Park, Upper Georgetown, and Georgetown Heights,” gloverparkhistory.com/cemeteries/holy-rood-cemetery/holy-rood-cemetery/ accessed October 18, 2020; Carlton Fletcher, “Slave Burials in Holy Rood Cemetery,” gloverparkhistory.com/wp-content/uploads/HRnorth-e1429382924461.png accessed October 18, 2020, and “Holy Trinity Catholic Church (Washington, D.C.)” en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holy_Trinity_Catholic_Church_(Washington, D.C.) accessed October 18, 2020.
8. Deaths 1818-1867, Trinity Church, Georgetown, D.C., p. 57.
9. Deaths 1818-1867, Trinity Church, Georgetown, D.C., p. 175.
10. Carlton Fletcher, “Glover Park History: Historical Sketches of Glover Park, Upper Georgetown, and Georgetown Heights, African-Americans Buried in Holy Rood Cemetery,” gloverparkhistory.com.