OUR HISTORY: WHO WE ARE
Holy Family Church began as a Mission back in 1890 and quickly became the “focal point” for black Catholics in Prince George’s County who suffered the “pains of segregation and a lack of transportation” to distant parishes. Today it serves people of various ethnicities and recent immigrants, particularly from Africa and the Philippines. While the neighborhood has greatly changed from rural to suburban, Holy Family has remained a stable oasis for Catholic fellowship, faith, worship and service.
A Contemporary Link to Our Origins
Veronica Aristine Fletcher passed away on January 31, 2014 at her home. She was 101 years old. While she was a long-time parishioner of Holy Family Parish, the large number of mourners necessitated having the funeral at nearby St. Joseph Church in Largo, MD. She was also active member of our Ladies Auxiliary of the Knights of St. John International No. 16. She was the granddaughter of Isaac and Henrietta Mitchell. During the late 1800’s, Isaac Mitchell began the building of the foundation of what would become Holy Family Catholic Church in Mitchellville, MD. Isaac had his own farm and hired help to assist him in digging the foundation for the church. Lacking the big machinery of today, their primary tools for building were hammer, saw, pick and shovel. The land for the church was given by Isaac and Willie Ann Wood to Archbishop James Gibbons of Baltimore on June 8, 1889. Another acre was sold to us in 1896. On Sunday, February 9, 1890, the 1,000 lb. cornerstone was laid which began the construction of the Holy Family Mission. It was completed about 1892. Once constructed the more affluent parishes nearby donated pews, a bell, and windows. The donors had their names placed on the windows.
Established as a Mission in 1890
Holy Family began as a mission church in 1890 with the mother church being White Marsh (Sacred Heart) in Collington (now Bowie, MD). The Mitchells were the primary members or our first family. The members of the Mitchell family were buried in the cemetery there. The Jesuits (as circuit riders) tended to the weekly spiritual needs of local black tenant farmers in Mitchellville, MD. The priest would sometimes stay overnight in the small attic over the church sacristy. Our first pastor was Fr. David Walker, SJ.
The parish had little in monetary resources, but it had generous parishioners who shared what they had. Parishioners operated regular fundraisers to maintain the church and farmers donated chickens and vegetables for picnic dinners. Many of the families who still attend Holy Family today were these helpers of old. Given that most of the parishioners were poor farmers living in a rural area, transportation to and from church was always an issue. During these horse-and-buggy days, many parishioners walked long distances in extreme weather and along rough roads for services. The church was heated by coal with “potbelly” stoves. In later years, two small mission chapels were established by Father Albert for those who lived some distance away: St. Matthew in Collington and Our Lady of Angels. St. Matthew is today a Masonic lodge on Church Road.
We have this testimony from the Veronica Fletcher: “The priests lived in the attic of the church because there was no rectory. In later years the Knights of St. John built the old hall (torn down and now replaced) and the rectory. The work was done by carpenter named Clark and my two cousins James and Snowden (parishioners who lived near the church). Mr. Earl Proctor made routine visits to Washington, DC to pick up the brothers from the seminary and the nuns from the convent to help teach Sunday school. The children were transported by a bus driven by Mr. Reggie Butler so as to assure that they received Catholic instruction.”
Established as a Parish in 1938
Archbishop Curley of Baltimore and Washington apportioned about 50 square miles to the east of the Nation’s Capital to the care of the Josephites. This area included the Holy Family Mission. The population of the mission had grown so much that Holy Family was given resident parish status in 1938. In 1939, Ascension Parish in Bowie, MD took over the administration. The Josephites were a residential order, whose primary work was ministering to the black community and was best suited to address their religious needs. The tenant farmers began to own their farms and settle the community. The first resident pastor, Josephite Fr. John C. Albert, noted that Holy Family served an area of over a hundred square miles!
Welcomed Diocesan Priests and Divided in 1972
The Josephite Society made the decision in 1972 to withdraw from the parish since the new development in the area was a heavy concentration of middle and upper-middle class whites. They believed that the Archdiocese of Washington was in a better position to offer apostolate service to the people in the Mitchellville area. The Society reconfirmed its decision to work in the black community and among the poor. Rev. Robert T. Wummer’s appointment as the first diocesan pastor of Holy Family coincided with establishment of St. Edward the Confessor Church at Pointer Ridge in Bowie. St. Edward’s was carved from Holy Family Parish, St. Mary’s in Upper Marlboro, and Sacred Heart in Bowie.
Rev. Michael C. Kidd was appointed pastor of Holy Family Parish in June of 1982. He led Holy Family for 23 years until his retirement in 2005. Next, Rev. Mark Knestout served as both our Pastor and as Archdiocesan Director for Worship. Our current pastor, Rev. Joseph Jenkins was assigned here in July of 2007.
Designated as an Historic Landmark in 1984
Holy Family Church was built upon donated land by volunteer labor. The black tenant workers, some of whom were freed slaves, would work a full day in the fields and then travel miles to work on the church. A number of the descendants of these hard-working and self-sacrificing families are with us to this very day. Holy Family Church is an official African-American historical site for Prince George’s County.
The Prince George’s Historic Preservation Commission designated Holy Family as an historic site in 1984. This decision was based on the following criteria:
(1) it had value as part of the cultural characteristics of Prince George’s County;
(2) it exemplified the religious heritage of the County in the establishment of a rural Roman Catholic mission for the local black community;
(3) it embodied the distinctive characteristics of late Victorian ecclesiastical architecture; and
(4) it represented an established visual feature in its rural setting.
The children posed for the above photo on the left side of the Church where now we have a parking lot in front of the parish cemetery. We can see some grass and (much smaller) trees in the background, but given its historical nature, the pastor asked, “Where are the graves?” We only started burying the dead in the area adjacent to the church in the 1930’s. Prior to that, the deceased were buried in other local cemeteries and particularly at White Marsh (Sacred Heart) and at Ascension in Bowie, MD. The last body buried in our parish cemetery was in the early 1970’s.
The late Rev. Robert Mulligan, SSJ stated that the parish church and graveyard were reputedly built upon what was an Indian burial site. Indeed, testimony was handed down to him that remains were encountered during the construction. Many of the original parishioners were members of the Proctor, Swann, Queen and Savoy families. The name that was used for these families in the black community was “Wesorts” which has since fallen out of favor. When asked about its roots, the reply came from the expression, “We sort of people” of mixed blood. It is known for a fact that many of these families intermarried with the indigenous Native Americans. The head of the Queen family helped to construct the Church in 1890. It took two years.
Looking to the Future
The Knights of St. John, International have had a Commandery at Holy Family for over a century. Alongside them they have been assisted by women of faith in the Holy Family Woodmore Auxiliary. Back in 2008, we instituted the Fr. Michael C. Kidd Council of the Knights of Columbus. During the next decade we proved ourselves as one of the strongest councils of its size, regularly winning awards in the service areas for the State of Maryland jurisdiction. The Ladies of Holy Family Mitchellville was established a few years ago as their auxiliary. More recently we have made efforts to establish both a Marian Sodality and our own Legion of Mary. Our parishioners help to feed the hungry at SOME and have volunteered, gathered supplies, and collected thousands of dollars for Shepherd’s Cove Family Shelter. Our Shelter Meal Ministry operates a Parish Food Pantry and helps the poor, not just at Christmas and Thanksgiving, but all year long. We have Special Education teachers who teach weekly in the modular building— promoting inclusion for all our children. We support St. Mary of the Assumption as our regional parochial school. We also support a diverse music ministry. As we look to the days ahead, ours is a Parish that will both keep the faith and live it out with justice and charity. Our best days are ahead of us.
Our Spiritual Leaders
Robert Mulligan (Sept. 1968-Sept. 1972)
Francis Lauriola (1974)
Vincent Donovan (1975-1982)
Michael Kidd (1982-2005)
Mark Knestout (2005-2007)
Joseph Jenkins (2007-present)