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The History of Slavery in the U.S. Catholic Church

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In 1717, a prominent Jesuit priest handed over a sprawling Maryland plantation controlled by his Catholic order to a new owner. Amid the hogs and milk cows, candlesticks and chalices were 15 enslaved men, women and children.

The Jesuits soon regained control of the estate and their human property. But the handwritten deed, the oldest known record of Jesuit slaveholding in Maryland, made plain what some settlers already knew: The Jesuits had turned to the enslavement of human beings to help fuel the growth of the early Catholic Church.

By 1838, the Jesuit order owned about 300 people. Forced labor and the profits derived from the sales of people helped to sustain the clergy and to finance the construction and the day-to-day operations of churches and schools, including the nation’s first Catholic institution of higher learning, the college known today as Georgetown University.

The enslaved people — the Black men, women and children who sustained the Jesuits and helped to drive the church’s expansion — are invisible in the origin story traditionally told about the Catholic Church in the United States. But, as scholars, journalists, genealogists and Jesuit researchers dig deeper into this history, that is beginning to change.

I have spent nearly five years poring over 18th and 19th-century records scattered in archives, courthouses and historical societies in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Louisiana to illuminate the lives of these families. I am Black and I am Catholic. And my research has completely transformed my understanding of my church.

We often view the Catholic Church as a northern church, an immigrant church. But in the early decades of the American republic, the church established its foothold in the South, relying on plantations and enslaved laborers for its survival and expansion, according to historians and archival documents.

The Jesuits, who built the foundations of the early Catholic Church, believed that the enslaved had souls. But they also viewed Black people as assets to be bought and sold. At the time, the Catholic Church did not view slaveholding as immoral.

So priests baptized the children of the enslaved, blessed their marriages and required the people they owned to attend Mass, Jesuit records show. But the records also describe whippings, harsh plantation conditions, families torn apart by slave sales and hardships experienced by people shipped far from home as the church expanded.

The forced labor of enslaved people like Frank Campbell, Peter Hawkins and Mary Elizabeth Gough supported Jesuit missions, churches and schools all across the country, in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Kentucky, Louisiana, Alabama, Illinois and Kansas, Jesuit records show.

“We live at present in rotten logg house so old & decayed that at every blast of wind we are afraid of our lives,” Thomas Brown, an enslaved man who was forced from Maryland to Missouri to serve Jesuit priests establishing a mission there, wrote in a letter to the Jesuit leadership in 1833.

In the letter, Mr. Brown said that he and his wife were poorly treated by the Jesuit priest who served as president of Saint Louis University. He begged them to allow him to buy himself and his wife out of bondage.

There is no indication that he received a response.

Now, nearly two centuries after the Maryland Jesuits sold off most of their human property, the Jesuit conference of priests in the United States has reached an agreement with the descendants of the people they once owned, promising to raise $100 million to benefit descendants and to promote racial healing initiatives across the nation.

My hope is that the news will inspire us to take a closer look at our history. The records and photos emerging from the archives and from the family albums of descendants are revealing fuller and richer portraits of the enslaved people who helped to build the Catholic Church.

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