Paul L. Caron

Sunday, June 18, 2023

NY Times Op-Ed: My Church Was Part Of The Slave Trade. This Has Not Shaken My Faith.

New York Times Op-Ed:  My Church Was Part of the Slave Trade. This Has Not Shaken My Faith., by Rachel L. Swarns (Author, The 272: The Families Who Were Enslaved and Sold to Build the American Catholic Church (2023)):

The 272 2For more than a century, Catholic priests in Maryland held Black people in bondage. They were among the largest slaveholders in the state, and they prayed for the souls of the people they held captive even as they enslaved and sold their bodies.

So after the Civil War, the emancipated Black families that had been torn apart in sales organized by the clergymen were confronted with a choice: Should they remain in the church that had betrayed them?

Over the past seven years, I’ve pieced together the harrowing origin story of the American Catholic Church, which relied on slave labor and slave sales to sustain itself and to help finance its expansion. I am a professor and a journalist who writes about slavery and its legacies. I am also a Black woman and a practicing Catholic. As I’ve considered the choices those families faced in 1864, I have found myself pondering my faith and my church and my own place in it.

I stumbled across this story in 2016 when I got a tip about the prominent Jesuit priests who sold 272 people to raise money to save the college we now know as Georgetown University, the nation’s first Catholic institution of higher learning. Witnesses described the terrors of enslavement: children torn from their parents, brothers from their sisters and desperate people forced to board slave ships that sailed to Louisiana. It was one of the largest documented slave sales of the time, and it shattered entire families. ...

Catholic priests, who relied on slavery, did more than save Georgetown. They built the nation’s first Catholic college, the first archdiocese and the first Catholic cathedral and helped establish two of the earliest Catholic monasteries. Even the clergymen who established the first Catholic seminary relied on enslaved laborers. The inherent contradictions of praying for the souls of people held in captivity left few in leadership troubled. ... Most powerful leaders of the church supported slavery until the Union victory in the Civil War made its demise a foregone conclusion.

And so we come to 1865. ... [D]isdain for Black parishioners bubbled up in parishes, too, where Black and white children were often separated for catechism, First Communion and church festivities.

The church paid a price for its racism; nearly 20,000 African Americans in New Orleans alone are believed to have left in the two decades after the Civil War.

But many of the families I’ve researched chose a different path.

Why stay? To them, the church was bigger than the sinful white men within it. Those priests had the power to forcibly enslave people, but they did not control God, or his Son, or the Holy Spirit. The church — the true, universal church depicted in Scripture — did not belong to those men. That church — with the prayers, hymns and rituals of the faithful that had sustained these families for generations — belonged to everyone, including the throngs of newly emancipated Black Catholics.

Members of the Mahoney family, which was torn apart in that 1838 sale, passed their devotion from one generation to the next. They joined parishes, baptized their children and became lay leaders and religious leaders who worked to reshape the church by building institutions that would be more reflective of and responsive to Black Catholics. At least two members of the family became nuns who ran schools for Black children into the 20th century.

Many Mahoney descendants remain Catholic to this day. They have joined other descendants to press Georgetown and the Jesuits to make amends, prodding the institutions to break new ground in the movement for reparations and reconciliation in America.

So when people ask me whether my research has shaken my faith, I shake my head. I am inspired by the families who pressed the church to be true to its teachings. Their history is one of struggle and resistance, family and faith. Unearthing their stories has deepened my connection to Catholicism and transformed my understanding of my own church.

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