The pervasive institution: Slavery and its legacies in U.S. Catholicism

Author: Kelly L. Schmidt

Descendants Web

Over the past decade, several dioceses and religious orders have begun to examine more closely their histories of slaveholding. Yet most—especially white—Catholics are not aware that, as historian Shannen Dee Williams has often emphasized, the Catholic Church was the first and largest corporate slaveholder in the Americas. Many Catholics express shock and disbelief upon learning that, while some readily justify the Church’s slaveholding: “But Catholics were good to the people they owned”; “Their owners taught them Catholicism, which was good, right?”; “But only a few Catholics held people in slavery”; “Catholics didn’t want to be slaveholders, but they had to conform to society”; “But lots of Catholics were against slavery, right?”

Previous historical scholarship on U.S. Catholicism and slavery—what little there is—has often perpetuated these myths, claiming enslavement to Catholics was minimal and more benign than among Protestant counterparts; that enslaved people were contented; that Catholic bondspeople rarely resisted. While some defend the Church’s slaveholding by repeating slaveholders’ justifications that they brought the faith to enslaved people, others claim that Catholicism left no lasting impact upon people in bondage. New scholarship, however, is taking a more critical look at slavery and the Catholic Church. An increasing trend to view this history through enslaved people’s experience is revealing new insights about the nature of enslavement among Church members. There is much more to learn as we comb through religious archives and new scholars pave the path forward. 

Rooted in slavery


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Memorial stone in Jesuit plot, Calvary Cemetery, north St. Louis. Original photo by Michael Harter, S.J., Slavery, History, Memory, and Reconciliation Project; used with permission.

Slavery in the U.S. Catholic Church was pervasive, and before abolition it was a greater anomaly for a religious order not to hold people in slavery. Indeed, as Mary Ewens, Barbara Misner, and Joseph Mannard all demonstrate, the earliest women’s religious orders in North America that survived—namely the Carmelites, Loretto Sisters, Visitandines, Sisters of Charity of Emmitsburg (Maryland), Sisters of Charity of Nazareth (Kentucky), Dominican Sisters, Religious of the Sacred Heart (RSCJs), and Ursulines—did so due to reliance on enslaved people acquired through dowries, inheritances, gifts, and purchases. Ewens notes that none of the orders that failed to establish themselves permanently in North America seemed to have held people in slavery.


Before 1830, the most concentrated groups of Catholics lived in slaveholding regions: Maryland, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Missouri. When the Church established the first U.S. dioceses, those sites were immersed in slaveholding, as were the religious orders, educational institutions, and charitable works within them. Slavery made possible the expansion of new dioceses across the United States, carrying their slaveholding practices with them. Indeed, as Maura Jane Farrelly argues, by growing from Maryland, American Catholic identity “was born in a slaveholding context,” while Robert Emmett Curran declares that prior to 1840, U.S. Catholicism “was largely a Southern phenomenon, and the ‘peculiar institution’ was an integral part of it.”

The diocese of Bardstown, Kentucky, which grew out of the Baltimore diocese, exemplifies this trend—most of its colleges, seminaries, churches, priests, and lay Catholics held people in slavery, and its bishops were some of the largest slaveholders in the region. When Bishop Benedict Joseph Flaget bequeathed his enslaved people to Martin John Spalding, his successor, he listed those “whose names I now recollect . . . as well as all others whom I may not at this moment remember.” In Kentucky’s “Catholic Holy Land” in what was first the Bardstown diocese and later the Louisville diocese, enslaved people built St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral and labored at the neighboring St. Joseph’s College, run by diocesan clergy until Jesuits assumed administration in 1848. People likewise labored in bondage at St. Mary’s College (the site of a minimum-security private prison today), run successively by diocesan clergy, the Jesuits, and later again by diocesan priests and Congregation of Holy Cross brothers. Edward Fenwick established the Dominicans in the U.S. at St. Rose Priory in Kentucky, providing the order with enslaved laborers. People were enslaved at St. Thomas Seminary, founded by Sulpicians Flaget and John Baptist Mary David, and at the Trappists’ Gethsemani Abbey. The number of people the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Dominican sisters, and Lorettines held in bondage in the region grew exponentially in the decades following their establishment.

Even where we have not yet found evidence that an order held people in slavery, they participated in a slave society. The Sisters of Mercy, for instance, may not have been slaveholders, but in Missouri the Jesuits assigned them to supervise and catechize the women they enslaved. Likewise, the De La Salle Christian Brothers taught at schools supported by slaveholding dioceses and religious orders. Even Catholics who were not slaveholders generally accepted slavery, with few Catholic leaders condemning it.  

Labor, living conditions, abuse

No less than any other enslaved person, people enslaved to members of the Catholic Church endured abysmal conditions and abuse. Records about people enslaved to the Jesuits, for example, detail strict rationing of food and clothing and calculations for maximizing enslaved people’s labor time. They further document that large families were crammed into small, one-room cabins, often doubling as spaces for cooking and other labor. Smaller families and single people were crowded into more cramped spaces or in the lofts of outbuildings. In Missouri, even as enslaved families grew, maintenance of their existing quarters and construction of new buildings were both deferred for years, leading one Jesuit to remark, “The people are far from being happy and satisfied: no appearance yet of getting their cabins.” Housing conditions for Thomas and Molly Brown, enslaved at Saint Louis University, were so dangerous that Thomas declared to Jesuit leadership, “I have not a doubt but cold will Kill both me and my wife here.”

Catholic religious showed a cruel disregard for enslaved people and assumed their ignorance, as Jacqueline Willy Romero documents in several cases among the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. Mother Frances Gardiner said of the bondswoman Matilda, “[O]ur Matilda has lately lost both her children—a good thing, you know, for them,” and in the same letter described Emily, an enslaved child, as “about as smart as a cow with a broken leg.” Catholics further monitored and manipulated enslaved people to extract obedience and labor. Nazareth religious superiors frequently warned enslaved girls Martha and Isabel to “be a good girl,” and one admonished Martha that her former owners “would be very sorry to hear Martha was a bad girl.”

Catholic religious regularly inflicted physical violence on enslaved people. After an enslaved child, George Clements, upset a miller to whom the Lorettines in Kentucky sold corn, the Mother Superior sent Clements with a note directing the miller to “give George a good flogging and make him behave himself.” And although Jesuit regulations limited beatings of enslaved people, designated who could perform them, and prohibited Jesuits from beating bondswomen, they frequently ignored their own dictates. On the St. Inigoes plantation in Maryland, a girl named Sucky heard rumors among fellow bondspeople that one of her Jesuit owners used an old barn on the property to take his discipline. To see if this was true, Sucky followed him and observed him baring his shoulders for self-flagellation. “She immediately screamed aloud, & running to the barn door, begged her good master not to be so cruel to himself,” a Jesuit account later reported. Upset that Sucky had spied upon and interrupted his penance, the Jesuit “gave her so sound a thrashing, that she was determined never to care much about his self-cruelties in the future.”

Despite ecclesial regulations against separating enslaved families, religious orders regularly sold people away for economic motives, as punishment, or without justification at all. The Jesuits infamously sold more than 300 people to the Deep South in 1838 while some of their enslaved brethren remained in Maryland, were relocated to Missouri and other parts of the country, or sold in smaller sales. Just as the 1838 sale relieved debts for building projects at Georgetown University, Susan Nalezyty has shown that the Georgetown Visitation sisters had sold at least 21 people in the 1820s to ease debts from their own expansion. 

Despite ecclesial regulations against separating families, religious orders regularly sold people away for economic motives, as punishment, or without justification at all.

Few things revealed the hypocrisy of slaveholding Catholics more than their arbitrary treatment of families. When it served their economic interests, slaveholders sold and separated families with few qualms. But in other moments, Catholic slaveholders demonstrated selective concern about religious morality, often coupled with motives of social control. The Ursulines routinely sold women who bore children out of wedlock, and Emily Clark shows that the Capuchins were keen to legitimate marriages among their bondspeople. Clark recounts one especially egregious case in which the Ursulines separated their bondswoman Teresa from her husband Estevan for at least six years while they sought to substantiate reports that her first husband Mathurin, who had been missing and presumed dead, had been sighted in Havana.

Bondspeople were also subjected to sexual abuse from their Catholic enslavers, including religious. In most cases, records alluding to these incidents are vague. Jesuit regulations confined the spaces enslaved women could enter and forbade Jesuits from receiving women in their bedrooms for confession, blaming the women’s supposed lack of chastity rather than the moral failings of their religious enslavers. People who suffered sexual assault while enslaved to Catholic religious and laypeople coped in the same ways as other bondspeople. Some may have used these encounters to negotiate better conditions, or freedom, for themselves and their children. This is likely what Susanna Queen, a woman enslaved to Jesuit Father John Ashton, did to take care of herself and her mixed-race children, whom scholars believe Ashton fathered by coercing her into a sexual relationship as a teenager. William Thomas details how Queen won her freedom suit in 1796 but returned to White Marsh in 1800 after marrying a man enslaved to the Jesuits, ultimately convincing Ashton to let her build a cabin for her family. She continued to serve Ashton, and one of her sons acted as his personal valet. As Thomas writes, “Whatever the nature of her relationship with the priest, she knew that her freedom, her children’s freedom, and her marriage to an enslaved man depended in no small measure on John Ashton’s approval, perhaps on his position as manager, on his standing within the Jesuit order, and even more precariously on his whim.”

Catholic religious also manipulated their own rules and withheld information from bondspeople to keep them in bondage. Edmond, enslaved to the RSCJs in Missouri, was retained by the sisters because he was a “good person” while the religious petitioned the bishop for permission to sell his wife to the Deep South because they feared she would set their house on fire. When a contingent of RSCJs later joined the Jesuits in 1841 at a mission to the Potawatomi in Sugar Creek, Kansas, they brought Edmond with them, despite slavery’s prohibition in that part of the territory. The superior, Lucile Mathevon, wrote, “I don’t tell [Edmond] he’s free in Kansas, even though he would probably stay. I am being very careful not to let him learn that he is free here, for even though he is content and perhaps too pious to take advantage of [his free status], he is nonetheless more certain (if that is possible) to leave it alone, if he remains ignorant of it.”

A network of enslavement


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On October 7, 1822, Bishop Louis DuBourg purchased the Henry and Jenny Nesbit family and sent them to the Vincentian seminary in Perryville, Missouri. In the decades to come, the Nesbits were exchanged, shared, and sold among numerous dioceses and religious orders. While the family tree above excludes certain details in the interest of clarity, it charts the relationships of some of those enslaved persons whose ties were severed by the decisions of clerics. For a more complete tree, contact the author.

Dioceses and religious orders cultivated a system of exchanging and sharing enslaved people among themselves, a process exemplified by the experience of the Nesbit family. Across several generations, the Nesbits were separated for the service of clerics and religious orders in the dioceses of St. Louis and New Orleans. When Catholic religious shared the labor of enslaved people, they tore families apart.

The record begins in 1822, when Bishop Louis DuBourg purchased Henry and Jenny Burch Nesbit and their nine children, a number that would grow in the years to come. DuBourg initially planned to send the family to labor for the recently established Jesuit mission in Florissant, Missouri. Instead, DuBourg diverted the Nesbits to Perryville, Missouri, to toil at the Vincentian seminary. Over the coming years, DuBourg and his successor, Joseph Rosati, capriciously moved members of the Nesbit family to other religious in the diocese. 

Charles Nesbit, Henry and Jenny’s eldest child, was regularly sent between Perryville and the bishop’s residence in St. Louis, where he served as the prelate’s cook and personal attendant, accompanying him on trips through Missouri and Louisiana. In Perryville, Charles married Areminta, and together they had Mary Ann, Stephen, and Elizabeth. Charles continued to be forced to make the approximately 80-mile trek between Perryville and St. Louis, sometimes with his family and sometimes separated; their nomadic life meant that Mary Ann and Stephen were baptized in Perryville, Elizabeth in St. Louis. In 1831, Rosati exchanged Charles’ sister Mary and her two infant children, then in St. Louis, with Areminta, Mary Ann, and Stephen, presumably to unite most of Charles Nesbit’s family in St. Louis. Any time together in St. Louis, however, was short-lived, for in March 1836 Rosati loaned Charles to Cahokia, Illinois, to paint, plaster, and whitewash a house Rosati bought to serve as a convent for the Sisters of Saint Joseph. By July 1837, Rosati had placed Charles under the charge of Reverend Joseph Anthony Lutz, who tried to pass him on to the Jesuits but instead hired him as a cook to a Mr. Leonard for a year. Charles attempted to escape three months later, but Leonard sent the constable after Charles, who was captured and imprisoned for three days. His escape unsuccessful, Charles sued for freedom in 1840 on the basis of having been sent to labor in Illinois, a free state. Shortly after Charles filed suit, Rosati left town and appointed Jesuit Peter Verhaegen to supervise Charles, forcing him to withdraw his suit against Rosati and re-file against Verhaegen. As the suit dragged on, Verhaegen and Rosati impeded it by attempting to sell Charles, hiring him out to cook on a steamboat on the Mississippi (removing him from the court’s jurisdiction and preventing him from meeting with counsel), and pressuring key witnesses to evade court and to change their testimony. While Charles appears to have won his freedom, what became of him and his family remains unknown.

Like Charles and his sister Mary, many of their other siblings—including Jesse, Eliza, Sarah Ann, Andrew, William, Peter, Elizabeth, and Clement—were similarly wrenched from their family to serve the region’s expanding Catholic institutions. When DuBourg told Reverend Edmund Saulnier in St. Louis to send Charles to him in New Orleans in 1823, he requested that Jesse be sent too. DuBourg then mortgaged Jesse to his nephew-in-law. In 1826, DuBourg expressed his intention to buy Jesse back and attempted to do so over the next four years. It is not known whether Jesse ever returned to Missouri. DuBourg gave Eliza to the RSCJs in Missouri shortly after purchasing her, and the sisters brought Eliza with them when they founded Saint Michael’s Convent in Louisiana. In 1831, Rosati sold Sarah Ann to Father Charles de la Croix in St. James Parish, Louisiana, and attempted to sell Andrew to de la Croix as well, but Andrew intentionally or unintentionally missed the steamboat that would ship him down river. Negotiations over the price for Andrew then dragged his sale out for two years, before Andrew was eventually passed among several clerics in Louisiana. William was in Bishop Rosati’s household as early as 1831 and remained until Rosati’s death in 1844, substituting as cook in Charles’ absence. In 1832, Rosati sold Peter to Rev. John Boullier. Elizabeth is believed to be the young girl recalled in 1835 from her hire out to a local stonecutter in Perryville so that Rosati could pay off a debt by selling her to layman Hugh O’Neil in St. Louis; when O’Neil died in 1843, his executors sold 14-year old Elizabeth again. Clement and his wife Louisa refused to let themselves and their children be sold to a Catholic slaveholder in Louisiana in 1843, but were subsequently forced to Galveston, Texas, to serve the new bishop, Vincentian Jean-Marie Odin.

As Church leaders scattered their descendants across the United States, Henry and Jenny remained susceptible as well. Around a year after Jenny died in 1829, Henry remarried to Minty, enslaved to Walter Wilkinson in Perryville. Minty was soon purchased by the seminary, and in 1836 the Vincentians sent Henry, Minty, their daughter Juliana, and Henry’s son Dory to their church at Cape Girardeau to help prepare a farm. They all remained in Cape Girardeau until at least 1850, when Henry died after a tornado swept through southeast Missouri. These patterns of sale and exchange shattered families; many of the Nesbits were never able to reunite. But because they were transferred within Catholic circles, they built a wider network where they could rely on kinship bonds and receive word of family when forced transfers impeded their interaction.


“It was a happiness for these colored people to have all the means necessary to work out their salvation, and I do not doubt, that all those that emigrated with us from Maryland blessed God now for his wonderful Providence over them,” wrote Jesuit Felix Verreydt of the enslaved people he and his peers had forced from Maryland to Missouri. But even Verreydt was obliged to recognize “though we heard sometimes their earnest desire to be free in a free country, it was difficult not to say almost impossible to convince them of their happiness.” Verreydt’s words expose the reality of enslavement within the Catholic Church and the myths used then and since to rationalize it: though their enslavers justified their actions by claiming they were providing the faith and were more lenient than other slaveholders, bondspeople were not contented. They repeatedly resisted their enslavement.

Some appealed to their owners’ Catholic moral values and emphasized their own Catholic devotion to argue for their freedom. Thomas Brown described himself as a “faithful servant in the Society [of Jesus]” who promised to pray for the Jesuit Superior “while I live” if only the superior would let him buy his and his wife’s freedom to prevent certain death in their derelict living quarters that winter. Peter Hawkins used his perceived piety to keep his family together and to convince the Jesuits to let him buy his freedom.

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Peter Hawkins, circa 1905. Courtesy of the Jesuit Archives & Research Center.

Several sought their freedom on foot, as did men enslaved to the Ursulines who escaped to the woods. Theodore and his children Honoré and Adelaide, André and Clementine and their children Josephine, Justine, and André, as well as Clementine’s sister Leocardee, all enslaved to the Ursulines, sought refuge among the federal troops occupying New Orleans during the Civil War. Theodore Tilghman and Joseph Dixon, enslaved to the Visitation Sisters, fled their enslavement to fight for freedom in the Civil War. People enslaved to the Jesuits such as Abraham, Peter Queen, and Henry, sought freedom by blending into local communities or going farther north.

Few Catholic religious outright emancipated their enslaved people. Most bondspeople were only able to secure freedom by negotiating to purchase it, as did people enslaved to the Ursulines, Visitandines, and Jesuits. Several networks of families, claiming they were already free, initiated freedom suits against their Catholic enslavers in Missouri and Washington, D.C. One of them, Louisa Mahoney, was forced away from her kin network in Maryland when in 1836 Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg gave her to Reverend Francis B. Jamison, who proceeded to help establish a contingent of the Sisters of Charity in St. Louis. Mahoney sued for her freedom in St. Louis in 1854, demonstrating that Jamison had ignored the college’s stipulation that she be freed after five years, only to learn from the Sisters of Charity and officers of Mount St. Mary’s College that the records validating her claims had been tampered with and destroyed.

Still others turned to violence. Scholars such as John Thornton, Mark Smith, and William Thomas have identified enslaved Catholics within the Stono Rebellion, in another reported uprising near the Jesuits’ St. Inigoes plantation in Maryland, and in several attempted revolts in Louisiana. Attempted organized rebellions heightened slaveholders’ fears and led to anticipation of further revolts and acts of violent resistance, as when Ignatius Gough, enslaved to the Jesuits, was arrested and tortured in 1840 for suspected involvement in a plot, or, as Romero relates, when the Nazareth Sisters sold a woman for fear that she had poisoned buttermilk. In Missouri, several people enslaved to the Jesuits threatened or carried out violence against their owners in response to severe cruelties. Women especially stood up for their kin, knowing that Jesuits were forbidden from beating enslaved women. Some threatened to throw stones at a man assigned to beat one of their kin. And two women became so furious with Jesuit Superior Charles Van Quickenborne that they had an altercation with him, into which another Jesuit intervened to prevent injury to his superior.

Religious agency denied

Although Catholicism claimed to offer spiritual equality, bondspeople were inhibited from exerting agency over their faith and regularly faced temporal denial of their equality within the Church. Enslaved people encountered constant messages of obedience in sermons, the confessional, and catechesis. They were relegated to back pews and, increasingly, to segregated galleries or separate chapels. Furthermore, many lay Catholic enslavers in rural areas neglected enslaved people’s religious formation altogether. 

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Eliza Nesbit, circa 1885. Courtesy of the Archives of the Society of the Sacred Heart, United States-Canada Province.

Enslaved people were routinely denied vocations of religious life. Mother Rose Philippine Duchesne briefly considered accepting girls of color into the RSCJs as coadjutrices who would labor for the order and rank below the white sisters, to which her superior in France responded, “Do not make the foolish mistake of mixing the whites with the blacks . . . you will have no more pupils. The same for your novices, no one would join you if you were to receive black novices.” When Eliza Nesbit wished to join the order, she was denied. Near the end of her life and once free, however, Nesbit won permission to dedicate herself “each Pentecost Sunday by a vow of Charity as a Sister of Charity of the Sacred Heart.” The public ceremony, with the profession of a vow to serve the sick and needy, took place in front of the assembled community and concluded with the singing of the Magnificat. 

Hagar Beatrix Hoods claimed that she had “joined” the Visitation Sisters, whom she served as a domestic servant, but although some records refer to her as “sister,” the Visitandines never formally admitted her. In 1824, the Sisters of Loretto ultimately agreed to admit three women enslaved to their order below the status of full members, requiring that they labor separately from the white sisters, follow the order’s rules along with rules established specifically for them, and don habits that distinguished them from the white Lorettines. The women were not permitted to take perpetual vows until they had served for 12 years. But the new sisterhood did not last a year. According to an 1898 Colored Harvest article, the Lorettines’ new ecclesiastical supervisor determined “that the time had not come for Afro-American religious” and “released the five negro novices from their convent obligations and sent them back to their former homes.”

At most, enslaved women were only admitted into secondary orders of religious societies of white women or into segregated orders exclusively for Black women. Both the Oblate Sisters of Providence and the Sisters of the Holy Family (who simultaneously held people in slavery while ministering to enslaved people during the antebellum period) admitted free women of color, but Shannen Dee Williams reveals that before the Civil War, the Oblate Sisters of Providence admitted one enslaved woman who obtained her freedom while a novice and at least eight women who had been born into slavery. Meanwhile, the rare religious orders that considered admitting Black men never followed through. Enslaved and free Black men stood no chance of being admitted into religious orders unless they passed for white.

Religious agency exerted

Pressured to practice the faith of their enslavers yet denied equal participation within the Church, enslaved people nevertheless exerted agency over their faith.

Some did so by wresting influence from their enslavers over their reception of sacraments, as Romero explains using the examples of Matilda and Jane. Matilda, enslaved to the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, took control over the sisters’ expectation that all enslaved people receive the sacraments by determining to delay her baptism until Easter. Matilda’s decision shows not only how enslaved people exercised choice over when they received sacraments but “could also imply a reluctance . . . to receive the sacrament at all.” And when Jane, also enslaved to the Sisters of Charity, gave birth to her eighth child, she withstood the sisters’ persuasions to name him Paul because he was born on St. Paul’s feast. While marking the feast day in this way was important to the sisters, it did not bear the same weight for Jane, whose son was baptized William Pius.

Others wielded agency by removing themselves from the Church. Lorendo Goodwin, born an enslaved Creole Catholic in Louisiana, recounted later in her life that she told “the priest everything I did wicked” in confession. But after Goodwin’s cousin confessed he wanted to become free and asked the priest to pray to God to set him free, the priest informed her cousin’s owner. “[T]hey were talking strong about hanging my cousin. They had my cousin up, and made him tell who had told him anything about freedom,” said Goodwin. The experience led Goodwin to abandon her Catholic faith: “[F]rom that day on I could not follow my Catholic religion like I had.”

Still others took advantage of the rituals and regulations of Catholicism to find meaning beyond their enslavement and to build, strengthen, and protect faith and kinship communities. Emily Clark’s scholarship on people enslaved to the Ursulines in New Orleans, Mary Beth Corrigan’s work on enslaved Catholics in Washington, D.C., and my own research on enslaved Catholic networks in the central and southern United States reveal that enslaved communities used sponsorships at baptisms and marriages to cultivate robust communities through which bondspeople helped one another survive the travails of enslavement and separation from family. 

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Daniel Rudd, circa 1915. Public domain.

As Catholic enslaved people transitioned to freedom, these communities remained strong. Across the central and southern United States, many newly free communities congregated together in the same neighborhoods and made segregated worship spaces their own, urging the formation of Black Catholic churches separate from white congregations where they could worship free from prejudice. Descendants of people enslaved to the Jesuits—including Matilda Tyler, whose family freed themselves from Saint Louis University through self-purchase—were among those who funded the formation of Saint Elizabeth Parish, the first Black Catholic parish in St. Louis. These church communities were centers for political action and mutual aid. Tyler’s youngest son, Charles, advocated for the rights of Black St. Louisans in his political career while joining the parish in supporting his cousins, the Chauvins, in pursuing success in athletics, arts, and entertainment. Daniel Arthur Rudd, born into an enslaved family who served as sextons in St. Joseph’s Proto-Cathedral in Kentucky, grew up to establish the American Catholic Tribune, the first Black Catholic newspaper, and to found the Colored Catholic Congress, the forerunner to today’s National Black Catholic Congress. Their stories reveal how Black Catholics in freedom shaped their communities and churches, despite the ways their once-enslavers splintered those communities and denied them full ecclesial inclusion.


The legacy of Catholic slaveholding still lives with us, and it is why several religious institutions are beginning to address their histories. In 2000, the Sisters of Loretto, Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, and Dominicans of Saint Catharine hosted a joint prayer service and apology and began erecting markers memorializing enslaved people at sites where the people their orders enslaved had labored and were buried. Momentum among religious orders to acknowledge their slaveholding pasts did not escalate until 2015, when Georgetown University publicly committed to making amends for its history of having survived through the sale of approximately 300 enslaved people from Jesuits of the Maryland Province in 1838. Georgetown issued a report that offered a series of recommendations for how the university should address the legacies of this history in the present, which included an apology, descendant-engaged plans for public monuments, memorialization, and historical interpretation and preservation; consideration of preferential admissions and financial aid options for descendant communities; and commitment to addressing issues of inequity stemming from slavery at Georgetown and nationally. Georgetown’s response prompted other Jesuit colleges and universities—including Saint Louis University, John Carroll University, the College of the Holy Cross, Boston College, and Xavier University—to examine their ties to slavery. By 2016, Jesuits of the Central and Southern Province and Saint Louis University had partnered to form the Slavery, History, Memory, and Reconciliation Project (SHMR), which by 2019 grew into an initiative of the Jesuits of Canada and the United States. The same year, Georgetown Visitation Monastery and Preparatory School partnered in researching the history of people enslaved to the Visitandines in Maryland. The RSCJs also formed their Committee on Slavery, Accountability, and Reconciliation in 2016 and were led by descendants of people enslaved at the Academy of the Sacred Heart in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, to organize a “We Speak Your Names” ceremony which included rituals honoring their ancestors, an apology from the sisters, the dedication of a memorial naming enslaved people, a plaque marking the still-extant slave quarters, and an announcement of a scholarship fund for descendants to attend Sacred Heart schools.

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On April 25, 2000, the Loretto Community established a memorial to honor persons enslaved at Loretto locations across the United States. Sculpted by Roberta Hudlow, S.L., the memorial stone incorporated the research of Joan Campbell, S.L. Courtesy of Sisters of Loretto Heritage Center Archives.

Since then, a growing number of Catholic institutions have joined in examining their historical entanglements with slavery and their lasting legacies. In 2020, the Archdiocese of Louisville hosted a discussion exploring reparations. Later that year, Loras College announced that because its namesake, Bishop Mathias Loras, had enslaved a woman named Mary Louisa, the college had committed to establishing a scholarship fund in Mary Louisa’s name and another in honor of Fr. Norman Dukette, Loras’ first Black graduate and the fifth Black priest ordained in the United States. The college also removed Bishop Loras’ statue from campus pending a community conversation about “whether and in what context the statue could or should be displayed.” 

Significant efforts are underway among other orders, dioceses, and schools, among them the Society of the Holy Child Jesus and Rosemont College, Loyola University Maryland, and the Archdiocese of St. Louis. As more efforts proliferate, the realization that many of these institutions’ entanglements with slavery are shared has led Catholic institutions to turn to one another to learn how to effectively respond. Recognizing the need for more unified efforts across Church institutions, SHMR and the Archdiocese of St. Louis recently partnered to organize a consortium to support Catholic institutions examining their historical ties to slavery. 

As scholarship and religious institutional efforts seeking reconciliation and repair continue to grow, we will see even more clearly how deeply slavery has shaped the Church and how the ramifications of this evil continue to manifest themselves today. Much of the fuller story of enslavement and the U.S. Catholic Church still lies buried in religious archives or remains with families descended from the people Church members enslaved. Resurfacing a more accurate and comprehensive history from beneath the layers of structural racism that have obscured it will require collaboration and innovative methodologies, and what we find will change our understanding of the history of the Catholic Church and lead to new insights about Black Catholic experience in the United States. But what we discover must compel us to act. We are called to listen to and learn from descendant communities about how the morphing vestiges of slavery, which endure in overt and systemic racism, continue to shape our Church in ways that harm the communities it has historically most exploited. Black Catholic churches often suffer from diocesan neglect and face greater risk of closure than do predominately white parishes, all-too-frequent manifestations of slavery’s enduring legacies in racism. This is a history and legacy that not only Church hierarchy and institutions are responsible for; it is a history and legacy that all Catholics have inherited, regardless of our own personal backgrounds. We are called to right the wrongs that have stemmed from the sins of slavery and racism together.

Kelly L. Schmidt is a postdoctoral research associate for the WashU & Slavery Project at Washington University in St. Louis, where she specializes in the history of slavery in the United States and how institutions—particularly the Catholic Church—are responding to their historical entanglements with slavery. She previously served as research coordinator for the Jesuits’ Slavery, History, Memory, and Reconciliation project and worked with SHMR and the Archdiocese of St. Louis to found Catholic Religious Organizations Studying Slavery. In 2019, she won a Research Travel Grant from the Cushwa Center in support of archival research on these projects.

Feature image: Descendants of persons enslaved by the Society of the Sacred Heart gathered in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, in September 2018 for a ceremony of reconciliation. Original photo by Linda Behrens for the Society of the Sacred Heart, United States-Canada Province; used with permission.

This article appears in the spring 2022 issue of the American Catholic Studies Newsletter

The first paragraph of the online version of this article was updated on February 24, 2023, to more closely reflect Dr. Shannen Dee Williams' public writing and speaking on the history of the Catholic Church as a corporate slaveholder in the Americas.