126 | VISION 2021 | VocationNetwork.orgby Carol Schuck Scheiber
Anumber of congregations of men and women religious in theUnited States at one time bought andsold enslaved people and made use ofslave labor. When the New York Timesturned its attention in 2016 to the272 men, women, and children theJesuits had bought and then sold tobail out the financially failing Georgetown University in 1838, the attentiontriggered renewed pubic focus on along-simmering concern.
Since the 2016 news coverage,Georgetown University held a studentvote to create a fund for descendantsof the men and women who weresold. The voluntary-donation fund wasapproved by students and announcedby the university in late 2019. TheJesuits have also launched the “Slavery, History, Memory and Reconciliation Project” to research the Jesuit’sslaveholding history and its impact ondescendants.
A number of congregations of religious sisters have also in recent yearsexamined their history of slaveholdingand launched initiatives in response.
For instance, the Georgetown VisitationSisters of Washington, D.C. have a webpage that explores the community’spossession and use of enslaved people.
It includes this apology: “We ask for for-
giveness for our part in the cultural sins
of slavery, and for the way that it was
lived out in our early community here
at Georgetown Visitation. We apologize
for a lack of moral courage in address-
ing these transgressions.”
Other religious orders have likewise
taken actions to acknowledge their his-
tory, sometimes apologizing, sometimes
working with descendants of enslaved
people to offer prayer and recognition,
sometimes establishing memorials and
scholarship funds. Each congregation has
fashioned its own response, although not
all congregations have made public their
history of slaveholding. New York Times
journalist Rachel Swarns writes, “Histo-
rians say that nearly all of the orders of
Catholic sisters established by the late
1820s owned slaves.” Slaveholding was a
social norm at the time; historians have
noted that Southern Catholic families,
priests, and bishops freely bought and
sold enslaved people.
The Society of the Sacred Heart sisters in
recent years have worked at reconciling
their slaveholder past. The sisters have
a webpage titled “Our History of Slave-
holding.” On it, the community details
approximately 150 enslaved people at
four of their locations in Louisiana and
Missouri. The Society of the Sacred
Heart formed a six-person Committee
on Slavery, Accountability and Rec-
onciliation. Through the committee’s
efforts, descendants led a ceremony
on R.S.C.J. property in Grand Coteau,
Louisiana honoring their ancestors.
The community also created grave-
yard memorials and a scholarship.
Several religious orders that have
begun a process of reconciliation indi-
cate that their efforts will be ongoing.
They hope—as the Jesuit project puts
it: “to uncover the truth of people’s
stories, to honor their memories and
heal relationships.” Persistence in that
effort would be in keeping with the
call by U.S. bishops in their pastoral
letter Open Wide Our Hearts to “join us
in striving for the end of racism in all
LEROY HAWKINS, descendant of enslaved people held by the Society of the Sacred Heart,attended the ceremony “We Speak Your Names” in 2018 on the property of the Society inGrand Coteau, Louisiana. He stands before the former quarters where his ancestors lived.