More than 50 years ago, when my wife Mary Katherine and I were exploring Montgomery County for a preferred location for a new home, we were especially interested in the Forest Glen community in Silver Spring because of its, what was then, semi-rural setting and notable significance in early state history. Situated halfway between the two highly developed commercial centers of Silver Spring and Wheaton, we concluded that to be so situated would afford us the best of both worlds. Fortunately, we chanced upon a new development which was being carved out of a former farm that was nestled amongst beautiful parkland. In 1960 we negotiated a contract with the local builder and, in the process, my wife’s lifelong love of oak trees blossomed.
Her affinity for these gorgeous sentinels of the landscape would find its expression in nearby historic St. John the Evangelist Cemetery.
Idyllically situated in a quiet residential neighborhood, the cemetery occupies land originally owned by the Carroll family, whose son John, a Jesuit priest, established one of the country’s first Catholic dioceses and founded Georgetown University. His cousin, Charles, was one of the two Maryland signers of the Articles of Confederation and the Declaration of Independence.
In our years as neighbors of the cemetery, Mary Katherine became an unofficial patron, periodically petitioning the superintendent on matters of maintenance and improvement. Sometime during the late 1990s, she began to notice the extent to which, over the many decades, violent storms had taken their toll on so many of the site’s original oak trees, ending their contribution to the grace and serenity of the cemetery. Dismissively informed of the absence of funding with which to rectify the situation, my wife directed her efforts to finding a solution. A few years later she came across a Washington Post article describing the demise of the historic Wye Oak near Easton, Maryland, the 460-year-old State Tree. A successful effort was made to clone the tree and a portion of the resulting progeny was offered for sale to the public. Mary Katherine seized the moment, immediately purchasing ten saplings and, with the agreement of the superintendent, arranged for them to be planted in key locations throughout the cemetery. For the duration of the critical phase that followed, which unfortunately coincided with a persistent summertime drought, she regularly drafted me and our children to serve as caregivers to transport water, stake, feed and mulch the struggling saplings. I am very proud to report that they all survived and are flourishing to this day, a gorgeous testament to Mary Katherine’s dedication.
In July 2014, my loving wife died, and the family arranged for her burial at St. John’s Cemetery in the shade of one of the majestic original oaks. On that day her Wye Oak descendants stood as silent witnesses nearby, now nearly 30 feet tall and a lasting reminder of one tree lover’s dream.
A poignant coda to this story was provided this past summer, when my eldest daughter visited the cemetery and discovered a tiny oak sprouting just above the ground at the head of her mother’s grave, the result of an acorn dropped from the tree above. And so nature demonstrates the continuity of life – from every ending, a new beginning.