Catholics Uncover Slaveholding History to Seek Healing

Uncover the history with these Catholics who talk about the Jesuits and slavery.

In 1833, Thomas Brown wrote a letter regarding his treatment by Father Peter Verhaegen, SJ, president of Saint Louis University. In it, Brown declared his membership in the Society of Jesus — a Catholic religious community of priests and brothers known as the Jesuits — saying, “I have been a faithful servant in the Society going on 38 years; and my wife Molly has been born and raised in the Society.”

The words Brown spoke — “in the Society” — are how Jesuits often refer to themselves today to indicate their standing and presence in their community. Though they advocated their membership in the society, the Brown couple didn’t enjoy any privileges of that membership. Indeed, the Jesuits held them in bondage.  

Brown and his wife, Molly, were one of three enslaved couples the Jesuits took from Maryland to St. Louis to start a mission there — they are just one of countless families torn apart by the evil of slavery. The letter Brown wrote was a request to pay for his own family’s freedom.

Thomas and Molly’s story is haunting and perhaps surprising: Catholics today are largely ignorant of the fact that enslaved people built and sustained many of our institutions and the  churches we worship in. And for most of the United States’ history, their stories have been left untold.

A team of historians, activists, religious people, and more are working to change that.

The Slavery, History, Memory and Reconciliation Project — a project of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States — is uncovering the stories of people whom the Jesuits held in slavery in Alabama, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, and Pennsylvania.

Uncover the history with these Catholics who talk about the Jesuits and slavery.
(Photo of Danielle Harrison courtesy of SHMR Jesuits)

For project co-director Danielle Harrison, this work is deeply personal. “I love the Jesuits,” she said. “And I believe in many ways (their) spirituality unites with African-American spirituality.”

As a Black Catholic woman, she also lives with the pain of knowing that had she been born 200 years earlier, she might not have had the chance to experience that spirituality. “There’s a grief, and reconciliation, and anger about why this spirituality that speaks so potently to me would have been denied me because of the color of my skin,” she said.

So, for Harrison and other Catholics, the project “gives us an opportunity to be honest about how we’ve failed in the past, and look to do something better.”

Uncover the history with these Catholics who talk about the Jesuits and slavery.

‘To give them honor and healing’

Kelly Schmidt serves as research coordinator for the project, and said her role is to “understand to the fullest extent possible what life was like for people held in slavery to the Jesuits, and to connect with their descendants.”

In connecting with — and forming relationships with — the descendants of people whom the Jesuits held in slavery, Schmidt said, the project finds guidance in how to take its next steps forward.

“People held in slavery have, for the most part, been historically unheard,” Schmidt said. Any attempt to atone for that wrong must center on enslaved people’s descendants “to lead us in how we should respond and what we are to do to address the legacies of slavery and racism today.”

Harrison explained that the project’s name was chosen intentionally to represent the work the Jesuits seek to do. “People of color have been enslaved since they were brought to the United States,” she said. “We have to get our minds around that history, to remember it, and work toward healing and reconciliation.”

The project works toward that goal by building relationships with descendants. Harrison hopes that her team is able “to express profound sadness, and apologize for the failure of recognizing their families as humans, made in the image and likeness of God.” She said, “I hope that we’re able to help descendants who are looking for a connection with their history and family — to give them honor and healing.”

Uncover the history with these Catholics who talk about the Jesuits and slavery.

‘Nothing about us, without us’

The Jesuits of the Maryland province held Joseph Stewart’s ancestors in slavery, and a quote from him guides this project: “Nothing about us, without us.” At every step, the project seeks to follow the lead of descendants while creating space and providing resources for them to share their family’s stories.

And this work doesn’t end in the past, either. Harrison hopes “we’re transformed, so we as a project never fall into saying what we’ll do for descendants — but that we are transformed by giving descendants the power that we stripped away from them in the past.”

Every Tuesday evening, members of the Jesuit community gather outside St. Francis Xavier College Church at Saint Louis University for a vigil honoring Black lives and holding the memory of George Floyd and other victims of racial brutality in prayer. At one such rally earlier this summer, Schmidt told the stories of Thomas and Molly Brown and other enslaved people.

“People struggle to make the connection between what’s going on today and where it came from,” Schmidt said. But in her work, she sees the ways the history of slavery and oppression of enslaved people and their descendants continue to create systems of inequality to this day.

Uncover the history with these Catholics who talk about the Jesuits and slavery.

‘We must continue until change happens’

In many ways, the work is challenging — but it’s also moving, and essential. Schmidt explained, “To see how people were oppressed by those who claimed to be bringing the faith to them, and knowing that they still believed even as they resisted their enslavement and pushed for change within the Church — that’s inspiring.”

Billy Critchley-Menor, a Jesuit scholastic who works in communications for the project, added, “I have to believe that God was trying to communicate to people that this institution, this practice, was evil. It’s a difficult thing to sit with, to know that prophetic voices could be squashed.”

But he recognizes that reconciling that fact with the Church today is essential: “We love to say that we founded universities and did wonderful things. But we also need to know what it means that we held people in bondage while claiming to believe in baptism. That’s a big part of our history.”

For Harrison, her faith is an essential component in anti-racism work. “Having faith is a grounding in the work we do,” she said. “It’s about who we are as people of God, made in His image and likeness.”

Harrison, Schmidt, Critchley-Menor, and their colleagues hope to help connect people with their family’s history, while seeking to atone for the sins of racism and slavery within the Church. And Harrison explains that this work is “not just a phase — not something that’s ‘in’ right now — but something that we must continue until change happens.”

“One of the links between the work that we’re doing now and the legacy of people like Thomas Brown,” Critchley-Menor said, is honoring those “enslaved to the Jesuits who resisted their racist practices. We’re just moving toward that legacy.”

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