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Healing a historical shame

NCR Staff

An extract from a history of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Ky., sets the scene for efforts to reconcile with African-Americans currently underway in three religious orders:

“In March 1822, three Sisters with four assistants set out to prepare the new home. With the help of two orphans (who later joined the community) and two Negroes belonging to the Sisters, crops were put in and a vegetable garden started.”

That passage, taken from a first centenary history (1812-1912) of the religious congregation, points to a major source of shame for the congregation: ownership of slaves.

To seek healing and forgiveness, three religious orders that once owned slaves will hold a reconciliation service Dec. 3 in Bardstown, Ky., to which neighboring African-Americans have been invited. Joining in the effort are the Sisters of Charity, the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross, and the Dominicans of St. Catharine.

“We cannot undo the mistakes of the past,” Loretto president Sr. Mary Ann Coyle said, “but we can at this juncture in our history acknowledge those mistakes and the injustice to which we were very complicit, and in this year of Jubilee ask forgiveness of our black African sisters and brothers.”

The reconciliation service will echo the congregations’ pledges to continue to work to eliminate racism in their communities, church and society.

The Sisters of Charity and the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross were founded in 1812 when Bardstown was the new American frontier. The Dominicans of St. Catharine were founded a decade later, in 1822. The Catholic presence on the frontier was primarily the result of Maryland Catholics fleeing persecution, making their way through the Cumberland Gap to settle anew.

All three orders had slaves, frequently personal servants who came to the convent as part of the dowry of the new novices. The Catholic historian, Benedictine Fr. Cyprian Davis, notes in The History of Black Catholics that it was the sale of her personal slave to the Belgian priest Fr. Charles Nerinckx that enabled Mother Ann Rhodes, the Lorettines’ first superior, to purchase the land for their convent.

Last year the Lorettines dedicated a monument at their motherhouse in Nerinx, Ky., honoring slaves who had served the order in its early years.

As plans got underway for the reconciliation service, the three orders sent invitations to African-Americans in the immediate vicinity of their congregations’ motherhouses, recognizing that recipients could be descendants of slaves bound to the convents.

For the earliest religious orders of men and women, keeping of slaves, in the words of Coyle, was “part of the cultures from which we sprang.” Historic records of the Loretto order show that, according to the 1860 census, 16 slaves worked at the motherhouse.

Slaveholding, including slaveholding by bishops, was part of the U.S. church from 1790 (when the first convent in the new United States was established by Carmelites in Port Tobacco, Md.) to 1863 (when U.S. slavery was abolished with the Emancipation Proclamation). Some American bishops even defended slavery as an institution after the Catholic church had finally condemned it in 1839. That was the year Gregory XVI thundered, “We do admonish and adjure in the Lord all believers in Christ, of whatsoever condition, that no one hereafter may dare unjustly to molest Indians, Negroes or other men of this sort; or spoil them of their goods; or reduce them to slavery.”

Sr. Joan Scanlon, president of the Dominicans of St. Catharine, said, “We who are followers of Jesus have the power to forgive but we cannot forgive ourselves. We are asking for forgiveness for the sin of slavery, for our part in the victimization of those who were enslaved.”

In the words of Sr. Maria Brocato, president of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, “We commit our energies and strength to assisting those who may in any way now be enslaved by economic or unjust systems.”

In the 20th century, these Southern congregations of women religious tackled those unjust systems as the sisters joined the civil rights marches on Selma, Ala., and Washington, were active in voter registration throughout the South, integrated their hospitals, taught in black colleges under a Catholic Interracial Justice program -- and had crosses burned on their lawns.

Today they are multicultural, multiracial orders. The 790-member Sisters of Charity community, for example, includes 192 sisters from India and four from Belize. All three communities have African-Americans as associate members.

Scanlon acknowledged that organizing a reconciliation service entails some risk. For her, she said, the greatest risk is that the service “would seem just another empty gesture. Whistling in the wind.”

That would be a dismaying conclusion to what has been, in effect, a six-year development that began through Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and Dominicans working together in Belize at a time when their congregations were wrestling with adventurous new commitments to multiculturalism.

Along the way, in a spirit of reparation, the three congregations have established scholarships for minorities in their high school and colleges and brought racial diversity to their various boards, especially at the local level.

The reconciliation service will be marked by the establishment of an inter-congregational fund, Scanlon said. No decision has yet been made on what multiracial project might be funded.

Arthur Jones’ e-mail address is ajones@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 24, 2000