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Holy Trinity Parish and Race: An Overview (Pt. II)

By Bernard A. Cook

We invite Holy Trinity parishioners and others to learn more about the role of slavery, segregation, and race in Holy Trinity’s history. We hope that, in throwing more light on our parish’s past, our work will open doors to reflecting on that past and on its implications for our present, and inspire our daily interactions with others.

Missed Part I? Read it here

View from the south tower of Healy Hall at Georgetown University, looking towards Washington, D.C., with the Washington monument in the distance. Courtesy of Georgetown University Archives / DigitalGeorgetown.


The climate at Holy Trinity from its founding was colored by the acceptance of slavery, racial separation, and even the assumption of Black racial inferiority by its early priests and white parishioners. The Jesuits in the 18th and 19th centuries participated in the institution of slavery. They held enslaved persons and sold enslaved persons, but they regularly stressed the obligations of slaveholders toward those they enslaved and opposed the separation of married enslaved couples.

If this reeks of noblesse oblige, it, at least, asserted that slaveholders were not at liberty to treat enslaved persons however they pleased. Slaveholders, as Christians, had obligations to those they enslaved, who after all were persons redeemed by Christ. In 1749, a Jesuit, George Hunter, during a retreat at Port Tobacco, had argued, “Charity to Negroes is Due from all particularly their masters. As they are members of Jesus Christ, redeemed by his precious blood, they are to be Dealt with in a charitable, Christian, paternal manner.” (2)

Joseph P. Mobberly, the Jesuit brother who administered the Jesuit property at St. Inigoes in the early 19th century, defended the institution of slavery, but was ambivalent about its consequences. Mobberly wrote, “Slavery is not only lawful, reasonable and good, but that it is also necessary.” (3) However, he argued that the responsibilities of slaveholders for the spiritual and material welfare of enslaved persons were such that slaveholders would be better off materially and certainly, in view of eternal salvation, much better off spiritually without enslaved persons. (4) He concluded, “It is better to sell for a time, or to set your people free.” (5)

The American Catholic Church and the American Jesuits, after the order was re-constituted in 1814, accepted slavery as part of the American fabric. Although Fr. Francis Neale, S.J., who was pastor of Holy Trinity from 1790 to 1819, did not challenge the institution, he and others sought to promote “paternalistic” treatment of enslaved African Americans. Fr. Neale in a sermon at Holy Trinity repeated verbatim the 1749 words of Fr. George Hunter, “Charity to negroes is due from all, particularly their masters. As they are members of Jesus Christ, redeemed by his precious blood, they are to be dealt with in a charitable, Christian, paternal manner, which is at the same time a great means to bring them to their duty to God and therefore to gain their souls…” (6)

Despite his words, Fr. Neale in 1814 had personally sold an enslaved person, Isaac, who had run away from Georgetown College. (7) While president of Georgetown as well as pastor of Holy Trinity, Fr. Neale had been sued by Priscilla Queen, an enslaved woman at Georgetown. Queen asserted that a female forebear had been free, and that as a result she should be free. Queen, represented by Francis Scott Key, lost the case on the grounds that her assertion was based upon double hearsay. (8)

During his 1822 visit to inspect the Jesuits in the United States, Fr. Peter Kenney, S.J., an Irish Jesuit sent by the Society of Jesus as its Visitor, or overseer, to the American mission, declared the owning of enslaved persons by the Jesuits immoral and ordered them “to part with them.” However, he did not see a moral problem with the Jesuits selling them. On September 10, 1832, Fr. Peter Kenney asked Fr. Neale to provide him with “the number and description of the Blacks, whom you would sell [from the Jesuit St. Thomas Manor] to Mr. John Lee and to Mr. Horsey” in Louisiana. Fr. Kenney wrote that the planters “prefer Catholics.” (9)

Fr. John Grassi, S.J., who had been sent by the Russian Province of the Society of Jesus, which had survived the suppression of the order in the West, served as president of Georgetown College from 1812 to 1817. His views on slavery and the dignity of the enslaved mirrored those of Fr. Neale. However, Fr. Grassi, in encouraging the religious instruction of enslaved persons held by Catholics, commended a beneficial instrumental effect of Catholicism upon enslaved persons. He wrote, “Catholic slaves are preferred to all others, because they are more docile and more faithful to their masters.” (10)

Despite the failure of the Church to address the systemic evil of American slavery, Fr. Peter De Vos, S.J., at Holy Trinity dramatically expressed his conviction that the will of the slaveholder was not absolute. In 1827 Fr. De Vos refused the sacraments to a parishioner who had sold an enslaved woman, separating her from her husband. Fr. De Vos castigated the parishioner’s unwillingness to accept offers to reunite the couple as the “astonishing and crying shame of the congregation.” (11)

In 1819 Fr. John McElroy, S.J., who served as pastor in 1845 and 1846, opened a Sunday school specifically for African American children. The classes were taught by 10 volunteer white parishioners assisted by young white girls. Fr. McElroy stated that this project was intended, “1st to prevent Catholic Negroes from schools kept on Sundays by Methodists, etc. 2nd to teach them their prayers and Catechism at the same time they learn to spell and read.” (12) Fr. McElroy wrote that on June 6, 1818, 200 young Black boys attended the school, which was held in the evening in the school house opposite the church. (13) If the young African Americans were enslaved, it is significant that an ancillary purpose of the Sunday school was to teach them to read. This was something that was explicitly prohibited by Black Codes of the southern states.

An endeavor to provide education for African Americans was launched by Maria Becraft, a daughter of a prominent free Black family. In 1824 she opened a school for female Black children in Georgetown. She ran the school for eight years. However, in 1831, Becraft entered the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore, the first African American religious order.

In 2017 Georgetown University renamed McSherry Hall in Maria Becraft’s honor. The Anne Marie Becraft Hall was the first building at Georgetown University to be named after an African American woman. (14) Another building, Mulledy Hall, was renamed Isaac Hawkins Hall. Hawkins, whose name replaced that of Fr. Mulledy, was the first enslaved person listed in the 1838 bill of sale of the 272 enslaved men, women, and children sold by the Jesuits to the owners of two Louisiana plantations. (15) Georgetown president William McSherry, S.J., and the Jesuit Provincial Thomas Mulledy, S.J., for whom the two buildings had been named, had been instrumental in the selling of the enslaved persons.

In addition to the enslaved persons owned by the Jesuits in Maryland, the Jesuits of Georgetown College also owned enslaved persons. In 1802, Rev. Leonard Neale, S.J., the president of Georgetown College, paid $400 for Wat, a 30-year-old enslaved man, “for the use of said College.” Wat was subsequently sold to the Maryland Jesuit plantation St. Inigoes. (16)

Sixty-six enslaved people, some owned by the university, others by members of Holy Trinity parish, were among those buried in a cemetery which is now the site of the university’s White-Gravenor, Reiss, and Arrupe Halls, and the Intercultural Center. (17)

Billy, “the Blacksmith,” presumably an enslaved man at the college, died on August 16, 1817. He had only been ill for approximately 12 hours. Students prayed the rosary for him and recited the Litany of the Blessed Virgin. He was buried on the college grounds the next day accompanied by a procession of students. (18) Rachael, a “Colored” woman of the College wash-house was buried on the campus in 1822. (19) It is possible that she was an enslaved person whose services were rented by the College. Another enslaved person, Sukey, was hired by the College from William Digges from 1792 to 1797 for £10 a year. (20) Charles, a “servant” owned by the College, was buried on January 3, 1832. In April 1837, Margaret Smallwood, an enslaved woman at Georgetown, was buried from Holy Trinity and interred on the college grounds. Margaret, 45, the wife of Charles Smallwood, had been brought from St. Mary’s County in Maryland to work at the college. The Georgetown College House Dairy reported, “Margarita, a pious and most faithful slave of the college this evening died, after an illness of a certain number of days, which she patiently bore, receiving in time the sacraments and spiritual remedies.” (21) It is quite probable that Holy Trinity parish utilized the service of enslaved persons owned by the college.

Jan Roothaan, S.J., the Superior General of the Jesuits in Rome, opposed the sale of enslaved persons by the Maryland Jesuits. He wrote, “It would be better to suffer financial disaster than suffer the loss of our souls with the sale of the slaves.” (22) He was, nevertheless, persuaded to allow the sale by Mulledy and McSherry, who was in charge of the Jesuits’ missions in Maryland. Fr. Roothaan was told that Georgetown would not survive without the sale. He relented, but insisted on three conditions, which he hoped would mitigate the evil of the sale: the enslaved persons would continue to practice their Catholic faith; families would not be separated; and the money received would not be used to pay off debts incurred during the presidency of Fr. Mulledy. (23) None of Fr. Roothaan’s conditions were fulfilled. The sale paid for the debt incurred by the university during the presidency of Fr. Mulledy from 1825 until 1837.

In 1848, following a trip to Louisiana, Fr. James van der Velde, S.J., the Western Provincial of the Jesuits, bitterly complained that Fr. Roothaan’s conditions were violated and ignored. (24) Despite the complaints of Fr. van der Velde nothing was done, and Fr. Mulledy served as pastor of Holy Trinity from 1857 to 1858.

The Civil War brought an end to slavery in the United States. The institution ended in Georgetown before the end of the war. The enslaved persons, who were members of Trinity’s congregation and those owned by the college, were freed in 1862. President Abraham Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act on April 16, 1862. This act ended slavery in the District, and compensated slaveholders in the District up to $300 for each emancipated enslaved person. (25)

After the Civil War, the percentage of Black parishioners of Trinity declined. William Warner attributes this either to the end of slavery and demographic changes in Georgetown or to dissatisfaction with the parish’s segregation. In the early 20th century Holy Trinity’s African American parishioners numbered 357. They petitioned the Archbishop of Baltimore (as Washington was not yet a diocese) to establish a parish of their own. In 1923 their request was granted. (26)

Fr. Lawrence Schaefer, a Josephite, was tasked by the Archdiocese of Baltimore to establish a parish, Epiphany, for African Americans in the eastern section of Georgetown. Fr. Schaefer, at first, celebrated Mass in the homes of the new parishioners or in a beauty shop one of them owned. (27) A ramshackle building at 28th and P Streets, erected by the parishioners, was Epiphany’s temporary site.

In 1924, the parishioners purchased two vacant lots in the 2400 block of Dumbarton Street. Within two years Epiphany Church had been built. The Black parishioners, who left Holy Trinity, in order to have their own church and to worship without discrimination, were able to have Mass in the basement in 1925 before the upper church was completed. At first Fr. Schaefer slept in the sacristy. The congregation had financed the construction of Epiphany through their personal contributions, but, also, through what was earned through bake sales, card parties, dances, and a strawberry festival.

Neville Waters, one of the first parishioners, recalled that, at first, there were only two Masses on Sunday, at 6:30am and 9:30am. Parishioners who missed these Masses had to go back to Holy Trinity, where they were compelled to sit in the restricted area in the balcony, separated by a screen from the choir, and wait to receive Communion until all of the white parishioners had first left the Communion rail.

Everett Payne, who became a policeman, remembered the segregated services at Holy Trinity. When his family moved to the new parish, he served as an altar boy at Epiphany. Like many other of Epiphany’s original parishioners — or, at least, their children — he moved from Georgetown and joined another parish. Dorothy Thomas, a third generation member of the Epiphany, was somewhat unusual. Despite moving to Southeast D.C., she long maintained ties to Epiphany. Her brother kept the family’s home in Georgetown and on Sundays she would make the trip from Southeast. On the first Sunday of the month, through the mid-1980s, Thomas was joined by 30 members of the Sodality, a remnant of the dispersed congregation. However, by 2020 Epiphany no longer reflected its African American foundation. (28)

On April 19, 1994, Holy Trinity offered in a public service at the church a public apology, “Reconciliation our Story,” to its African American parishioners and their descendants, who had suffered discrimination at Holy Trinity. Kathy Millian, a member of Holy Trinity’s Racism and Intercultural Sensitivity Group, read an apology from the parish at the prayer service. “As a parishioner of Holy Trinity and on behalf of all parishioners of Holy Trinity who have gone before me,” she said, “I ask the forgiveness of the African-American members of this parish and their descendants for the discrimination, injustice and unkindness that they and their families suffered here. I apologize for the active wrongs that hurt you and for the wrongs that were caused by us standing by and doing nothing in the face of unfairness. We greatly admire your faith and the courage and strength that led you to establish your own place of worship Epiphany Parish. In the last song of this evening’s service we ask that on judgment day we will find an open door at the house of our Lord Jesus. I pray that the founders of Epiphany and of their families will from this day forward feel that they will find an open door at this house of our Lord Jesus.” (29)

At the Reconciliation service, Dorothy Thomas, who had been a member of Holy Trinity parish from 1912 until the establishment of Epiphany in 1923 shared a story characteristic of the humiliating discrimination that Holy Trinity’s African American parishioners experienced. A new nun told the Holy Trinity African American girls at Sunday school that she was shocked that they “had not been allowed to participate in the May procession in the past and that they would be in the procession that year. When Thomas and the other girls appeared on the appointed day in their white dresses and with their flowers, they sat in a classroom while the white girls lined up and left. After a while, a man came into the room and told them that a mistake had been made and that they would not be in the procession. Her family took the girls to St. Augustine’s Church...but by the time they arrived, the May procession was already over. The girls walked back to Georgetown from St. Augustine’s, leaving petals of their flowers along the way as their own devotion to the Blessed Mother.” (30)

For this and other sins against its Black brothers and sisters, Holy Trinity asked and continues to ask forgiveness.

Our History group will continue to explore and expand the story of slavery, segregation, and race in our parish and the lives of our parishioners for which this overview provides a framework.



1. Article © 2020

2. Maryland Province Archives, “‘Charity to Negroes’: Rev. George Hunter's reflections on the treatment of slaves, 1749,” Georgetown Slavery Archive,, accessed Aug. 24, 2018.

3. Joseph P. Mobberly, S.J., Papers, “‘Slavery is According to Reason’: The Mobberly Diaries, Part II, Aug. 1823,” Georgetown Slavery Archive, accessed Aug. 24, 2018, and Diary Part II, Box 1, Folder 7, p. 26-32, Joseph P. Mobberly, S.J., Papers, Booth Family Center for Special Collections, Georgetown University.

4. Joseph P. Mobberly, S.J., Papers, “‘Masters must answer’: The Mobberly Diaries, Part I, 1820,” Georgetown Slavery Archive, accessed Aug. 24, 2018,

5. Maryland Province Archives, “‘We are in the dark as long as we keep slaves’: Br. Joseph Mobberly, S.J., calculates the cost savings from emancipation, Feb. 5, 1815,” Georgetown Slavery Archive,, accessed Aug. 23, 2018.

6. William W. Warner, At Peace with All Their Neighbors: Catholics and Catholicism in the National Capital 1787-1860 (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1994), Warner, p. 88 and n. 21.

7. Entry of Jan. 30, 1814, in Father McElroy's diary: Jan. 1, 1813-Aug. 31, 1815; May 31, 1817-Jun. 21, 1818; Dec. 26, 1818-Dec. 18, 1821. DigitalGeorgetown

Manuscripts Collection, Georgetown University Library, Booth Family Center for Special Collections, Washington, D.C.,

8. Priscilla Queen sued for her freedom on Jan. 8, 1810, against Rev. Francis Neale, United States Circuit Court (District of Columbia) - Washington (D.C.) “Oh Say Can you See: Early Washington D.C.: Law and Family,”, accessed Aug. 16, 2020.

9. Neale was involved in the sale of Jesuit-owned slaves to plantations in Louisiana. Maryland Province Archives, “’They want them . . . for their Plantations’: Fr. Kenney to Fr. Neale on their plans to sell a group of slaves to a Louisiana planter, Sept. 10, 1832,” Georgetown Slavery Archive, accessed Aug. 23, 2018,

10. Warner, pp. 88-89.

11. Ibid., p. 119.

12. Ibid., p. 118.

13. Georgetown University Library, “School for Colored Persons at Trinity Church, 1819,” Georgetown Slavery Archive, accessed Sept. 18, 2020,

14. Warner, p. 118.

15. “Slave Census,” Maryland Province Archives, Oversize Box 4 (WO 112), Booth Family Center for Special Collections, Georgetown University., accessed Sept. 17, 2020.

16. Ibid. See “Bill of sale,” Vault Collection, Box 1, Georgetown University Archive.

17. Information provided by Dr. Bernard J. Cook, Associate Dean of the College, Georgetown University.

18. “Death of Billy the Blacksmith,” Georgetown Slavery Archive, accessed Sept. 16, 2020, and, accessed Sept. 5, 2020.

19. Carlton Fletcher, “Slave Burials in the Old College Ground,”

20. “Glimpses of Slavery at Georgetown College,”

21. House Diary, 1828-1872, Box 1, Folder 2 (550-7), “The death and burial of Margaret Smallwood, Apr. 21, 1837,” Georgetown Slavery Archive,, and Holy Trinity Church Deaths, 1818-1867, p.72.

22. Roothaan to McSherry, Dec. 27, 1836, Maryland Province Archives, Box 93, Folder 9, Booth Family Center for Special Collections, Georgetown University, “Fr. Roothaan, S.J., lays out the conditions for the sale of enslaved persons, Dec. 27, 1836,” Georgetown Slavery Archive, accessed Sept. 18, 2020,

23. Rachael Swarns, “272 Slaves were sold to save Georgetown. What does it owe their Descendants?” The New York Times, Apr. 16, 2016.

24. Maryland Province Archives, “Letter from James Van de Velde, S.J., to Ignatius Brocard, S.J., Nov. 27, 1848,” Georgetown Slavery Archive, accessed Sept. 19, 2020,

25. DC Emancipation Act, Apr. 16, 1862; Record Group 11; General Records of the United States Government; National Archives. The state of Maryland, which was not in rebellion, was not included in President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of Jan. 1, 1863. Following a constitutional convention in Maryland, a new state constitution which outlawed slavery went into effect on Nov. 1, 1864.

26. Warner, p. 92.

27. Telephone interview of Dorothy Harris Gray, whose grandmother was one of the initial parishioners of Epiphany, by Peter Albert, Sept. 6, 2020.

28. Greg Kitsock, “Keeping the Faith: The Black Churches of Georgetown Endure,” City Paper, Sept. 12-18, 1986, vol. 6, no. 37.

29. Kathy Millian, “Historic Reconciliation with Epiphany Parishioners Asks Forgiveness for Past Racism,” Holy Trinity News, May-June 1994, vol. 9, no. 4, p. 1.

30. Ibid., p. 2.


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