e-mail us


History of slaveholding, racism calls for amends

The late, famed Catholic church historian, Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, gave the same introduction to church history students year after year from the same, almost parchment-dry, set of notes.

Same anecdotes, same wry asides. Yet there was a moment when passion always broke through. “The shame of it,” he’d say, angered, the slight Irish lilt overcoming his studied delivery, “the greatest blot on the church’s escutcheon.”

What aroused Ellis’ dudgeon was the fact that the 19th-century U.S. church supported slavery. Many bishops and religious congregations of men and women were slaveholders. Some U.S. bishops actually defended the institution even after Pope Gregory the XVI in 1839 had thundered, “We do admonish and abjure 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 to spoil them of their goods, or to reduce them to slavery.”

How hard it is to reckon with slavery in one’s family story. America’s earliest congregations of women religious were slaveholders. And now three, based in Kentucky, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth (founded in 1812), the Dominican Sisters of St. Catharine (1822) and the Sisters of Loretto (1812), commendably are apologizing for that sin and inviting African-Americans from their surrounding communities to a Service of Reconciliation.

These slavery stories, while known to historians, are practically unknown to the general Catholic public. Much historic detail has been lost regarding dreadful tales from the period when Catholic plantation owners and Catholic institutions were involved in and dependent on slave labor. Among the worst accounts to survive concerns the Jesuits in Maryland.

Catholic slaves were numerically significant in Maryland’s Catholic count. John Carroll, the first bishop of the new United States, records, “The Catholic population in Maryland is about 15,800, about 3,000 children, and the same number are slaves of all ages, who come from Africa.”

The understanding in Catholic circles was that slave families would not be separated and not sold to non-Catholic owners. Church historian Benedictine Fr. Cyprian Davis provides the 1837 details of the Maryland Jesuit superior’s sale of 272 slaves mainly to Louisiana plantation owners, not necessarily Catholic.

When the new owners came for their possessions, a couple of brave Jesuits took off into the woods with some of the slaves until the new owners despaired and left.

As Davis succinctly puts it: “A dozen or so avoided the trip south.”

In time, the three women’s congregations in Kentucky grew wiser, as did the Jesuits and the church in general. Kentucky sisters integrated their hospitals, marched on Selma, committed themselves to work for interracial justice, and against slavery’s psychic twin, racism.

But racism, broad and narrow, is still a feature within the Catholic church. It is one of the present day shames of the Catholic family.

What can or should be done about it?

Despite episcopal statements, racism isn’t a topic preached against with any regularity or great feeling in Catholic churches. Slavery wasn’t, either.

And despite occasional stabs at it, the U.S. church, marking the Jubilee Year, has not adequately laid out its sorry 19th-century record on slavery for its 62 million adherents to see and understand. There is no simple, straightforward catalogue of Catholic slavery, of who did what when, where and why, as a simple teaching, preaching and study tool.

Catholics ought to know that part of our history through facts, not just rhetoric.

Not pleasant. Not easy. The Loretto Sisters, Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and Dominicans of Kentucky have taken a bit of a risk seeking reconciliation in their local communities. As one congregation president said, “What if no one [no African-American] comes to the service?”

The answer, surely, to sisters, to church, to ourselves is to try anew. Again. And again. To keep trying as long as modern racism -- successor to yesterday’s slavery -- persists.

National Catholic Reporter, November 24, 2000