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News Analysis

The Nuns Who Bought & Sold Human Beings

America’s nuns are beginning to confront their ties to slavery, but it’s still a long road to repentance.

[partial excerpts from NYT article by Rachel L. Swarns:]

Georgetown Visitation Prep School, one of the oldest Roman Catholic girls’ schools in the nation, is celebrating the vision and generosity of its founding nuns who championed free education for the poor in the early 1800s, including slaves.

But their recently hired school archivist and historian, Susan Nalezyty, discovered that the order’s ties to slavery were much deeper than had been previously publicized. None of the official histories described the extent of the sisters’ slaveholding or detailed the nuns’ profits from the sale of humans.

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.

Nothing else to do than to dispose of the family of Negroes
— Mother Agnes Brent, Convent Superior, 1821

Sister Brent approved the sale of a couple and their two young children, the young mother just days away from giving birth to her third child.

Nuns disposing of black families? I have been poring over 19C church records for several years now and such casual cruelty from leaders of the faith still takes my breath away. I am a black journalist and a black Catholic. Yet I grew up knowing nothing about the nuns who bought and sold human beings. 

For generations, enslaved people have been largely left out of the origin story traditionally told about the Catholic Church.  Slavery, time and again, throughout our nation’s history has fueled the growth of many contemporary institutions, including some churches and religious organizations.

Historians say that nearly all of the orders of Catholic Sisters established by the late 1820s owned slaves. Today, many Catholic sisters are outspoken champions of social justice and some are grappling with this painful history even as lawmakers in Congress and presidential candidates debate whether reparations should be paid to the descendants of enslaved people.

The Georgetown Visitation Sisters and school officials have organized a series of discussions for students, faculty, staff and alumnae, including a prayer service in April that commemorated the enslaved people “whose involuntary sacrifices supported the growth of this school.” They have published an online report about the convent’s slaveholding — and have digitized their records related to slavery, making them available to the public for the first time.

It wasn’t just a question of looking at the past. It was: ‘What do we do with this now?’
— Sister Carolyn Osiek, the provincial archivist for the Society of the Sacred Heart United States/Canada
A lot of communities now are very committed to dealing with issues of racism, but the fact is their own history is problematic.

They’re beginning to confront their own racism, & their own complicity in the racism of the past, but it’s a very long road.
— Margaret Susan Thompson, a historian at Syracuse University who has examined Catholic nuns & race in the US

And while she would like to see the order’s history of slaveholding incorporated into the curriculum of the schools they founded, few of those schools have publicly acknowledged their origins, despite the extensive research that has been done.

Not one of the school websites has anything about enslavement, we’ve whitewashed our history.
— Sister Dillard, member of the society’s committee on slavery, accountability & reconciliation
This whole thing reveals the ways in which the religion has failed us in some way. It’s hard. It’s difficult. But it’s good. It’s a way for our church to be renewed & that’s what it has to be. It has to be renewed.’
— Father Chisholm

The Sisters say they still have work to do. At Georgetown Visitation, a committee is focusing on embedding the history more deeply into the school curriculum. The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth are creating a permanent exhibit on their campus that will highlight the contributions of African-Americans to their congregation. The Religious of the Sacred Heart are weighing additional steps to promote inclusion and diversity and to eradicate racism within their order and in the schools they sponsor.

Sister Dillard and other members of her committee have already visited some of the schools founded by their order, sharing the history that their sisters have unearthed and urging young people to commit themselves to combating systemic racism.

She wants to make sure that students no longer grow up, as I did, without learning about the enslaved people who helped to build the church. She wants to make sure that we all know their names. 

#historymatters #blacklivesmatter #project1619 #slavery #slaveexposed #nyt #culturalimpact #culturalinnovation #culturalimpact #cultureinnovation #socialimpact #socialinnovation #whyitmatters #whydoesitmatter

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Ann O