Mulledy Hall, also known as Freedom Hall, center, is seen on the campus of Georgetown University April 4. The building will be renamed after Isaac Hawkins, the first enslaved person listed in the Jesuit university's documents on its selling of slaves. CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn

Bob Brehl: Lessons from nuns’ slave-owning past

By 
  • August 20, 2019

Scores of Catholic nuns bought, sold and bartered enslaved people in 19th century America, The New York Times unveiled in a fascinating in-depth account written by New York University professor Rachel Swarns.

Ms. Swarns’ work comes on the heels of her reporting in 2016 that the Jesuits sold 272 slaves in 1838 to pay off debts and help keep Georgetown University afloat. Her articles about the Catholic university’s roots in slavery touched off a national conversation about American universities and their ties to this very un-Christian period of U.S. history.

In 2017, Fr. Timothy Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, publicly apologized for the Jesuits’ slave-holdings of long ago. “We betrayed the very name of Jesus,” he said at the time.

With her latest, published in early August and entitled “The Nuns Who Bought and Sold Human Beings,” Swarns finds “that nearly all of the orders of Catholic sisters established by the late 1820s owned slaves.” And some owned many slaves.

For example, she writes: “The Georgetown Visitation sisters owned at least 107 enslaved men, women and children, the records show. And they sold dozens of those people to pay debts and to help finance the expansion of their school and the construction of a new chapel.”

It is always challenging to judge long ago words and deeds through today’s modern prism on human behaviour. 

But for priests and nuns, owning slaves 200 years ago feels just plain wrong. It’s tough to get your head around it, but why weren’t Church leaders abolitionists and leading the emancipation movement instead of being slave owners?

“When I discovered priests (and later nuns) owning people,” Swarns said in an interview from New York, “it was a shock to me.” 

In her feature article, Swarns points out that she is both a black journalist and a Catholic. And what really surprised her — after years of poring over Church records — was the casual cruelty by some of these leaders of the faith. Almost a total lack of empathy.

Take this note in 1821 from Mother Agnes Brent, the Georgetown Visitation sisters superior, as she approved the sale of a family of slaves — a father, a pregnant mother days away from giving birth and their two young children. 

“Nothing else to do than to dispose of the family of Negroes,” she wrote. It reads unnervingly similar to Pilate washing his hands. 

And such callousness reverberates today. 

Many Catholic nuns are champions of social justice and some are grappling with this painful history. Should reparations be paid to descendants of enslaved people? Should the Church acknowledge and apologize for their leaders’ actions back then and simply move on and chalk it up to history and different times?

As a journalist, Swarns offers no opinion on solutions, but sighs and wonders why the story of enslaved people has been left out of the narrative of the origins of the Catholic Church in North America. 

The origin story is more about spreading the word of God and embracing and aiding immigrants coming to the New World. But the role of African Americans is only just being told, thanks to Swarns and others like Church archivists and leaders like Kesicki.

Interestingly, about three million African-Americans make up three per cent of the U.S. Catholic Church, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. And there are 250 African-American priests, 437 deacons, and 75 men of African descent in seminary formation for the priesthood, and 400 African American religious sisters and 50 religious brothers. 

To be sure, callous cruelty was not the only thing involving the nuns, according to The Times. The records showed some nuns expressed extreme distaste over owning slaves, others refused to sell their slaves if they had misgivings about the buyer, some (like the Georgetown Visitation sisters) bought slaves to reunite families and others (like the Carmelites of Baltimore) cared for elderly slaves when they became infirm.

Still, these deeds cannot excuse the wickedness of actively partaking in the culture of enslavement of one race by another. 

The Times tracked down a descendant of slaves who were owned by the Church. This woman said that she and her relatives were astonished to hear their ancestors were owned by the Church, but it hasn’t shaken their faith or their Catholic identities.

To which an obvious question arose for the author of “The Nuns Who Bought and Sold Human Beings”: Did working on this story impact her faith?

After a brief chuckle and acknowledgement of the recent public revelations of misdeeds and criminal activities by priests, bishops and other Church leaders, Swarns said the Church is bigger and stronger than any individuals and their transgressions over the decades and centuries.

“The Sunday morning my article appeared in The New York Times, I was at Mass,” she said. 

It’s a fascinating read; check it out online.

(Brehl is a writer and author of many books.)

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