BOWIE, Md. (DC News Now) — A church in Prince George’s County discovered a lost burial site in the woods near their cemetery.

Church leaders believe they are the remains of Black Catholics and those who were enslaved. This weekend volunteers and archaeologists are working to clear the trees in the area to better identify and mark each grave across the church’s land.

“We have found hundreds of burials on our property and we are cleaning up parts of the hillside of our property to get better access to locating all of these lost tombstones and burials that are with them,” said Rev. Michael Russo, Parochial Vicar for Sacred Heart Catholic Church.

Church leaders believe it’s been here for centuries, but it was hidden by trees and debris over the years.

“So there’s always been this awareness that we have burials lost on our property and that they’re most likely of the enslaved who would have worked here when this was a functioning tobacco plantation under the Jesuit Fathers. The mission we decided to undertake over the summer was let’s clean up the cemetery and look for any lost tombstones and graves inside the woods and we very quickly started finding a lot more than expected,” said Rev. Russo.

They quickly discovered that many small rocks they found in the woods were actually gravestones. They partnered with a firm to conduct a ground penetrating radar survey and they discovered nearly 140 burials, many of them unmarked. Since the survey that number has grown.

The church partnered with archaeologist Dr. Laura Masur at The Catholic University of America. Dr. Masur has been researching the Jesuit plantations in Maryland for years. Dr. Masur and her students began mapping and documenting the graves already discovered.

“This is a good opportunity for students to learn about the challenges of maintaining and preserving cemeteries, and about the ways that racial injustice persists even after someone has passed away,” said Dr. Masur.

Now students, members of the parish, and the community are coming together to help clear the area and determine the scale of the cemetery that has overgrown.

“Many were enslaved. So they were hoping to give them honor and dignity they did not get in their own lifetime. I think we need to do that by knowing where they are making sure their grave is marked and respected,” said Rev. Russo.

They’ve also been able to track down some of the descendants of those that were buried there.

“It also provides an opportunity to meet and interact with people whose ancestors are likely buried at Sacred Heart. We’re all part of the same community, and spending your day off doing manual labor is an important way of showing respect for the deceased and for their descendants. It’s a work of mercy and a reminder of our shared humanity and shared mortality,” said Dr. Masur.

“[These are people] whose ancestors are here, who have not known where their ancestors are buried, or have had vague ideas. We’ve gotten a lot of support and really important feedback from them on just the affirmation that we need to do this, and affirmation that this is only the first step. We need to keep going to really to honor their ancestors who were buried here, so it’s really been great,” said Rev. Russo.

He says it’s one way to move forward and heal following the finds.

“It’s a sad part of the church’s history that there were slaves on church property owned by priests and leaders in the church. So what can we do to atone for that, but to honor those enslaved and non-enslaved who are buried here. It’s really an essential work of justice and mercy and as a parish, we’re fully committed to doing,” he said.

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, students from the Catholic University of America and the community will rake the hillside clean and flag any visible grave markers.