Georgetown liturgy does penance for sale of 272 enslaved people in 1838

“The Society of Jesus prays with you today because we have greatly sinned and because we are profoundly sorry,” said Timothy Kesicki, S.J., president, of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. Father Kesicki was speaking on behalf of the Society of Jesus in the United States at the Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition and Hope at Georgetown University. The liturgy was meant as a moment of acknowledgment of an institutional sin, committed to raise money to preserve Georgetown University—the sale of 272 men, women and children who had been the “property” of the Maryland Province in 1838 to plantations in Louisiana where many of their descendants still live.

“When we remember that together with those 272 souls we received the same sacraments, read the same Scriptures, said the same prayers, sang the same hymns and praised the same God, how did we, the Society of Jesus, fail to see us all as one body in Christ?” Father Kesicki asked.

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“We betrayed the very name of Jesus for whom our least society is named,” he told a hall crowded with some of the descendants of those 272, gathered in Washington, D.C., on April 18.

"We are profoundly sorry, we stand before God—and before you, the descendants of those whom we enslaved—and we apologize for what we have done and what we have failed to do."

“Now, nearly 200 years later, we cannot heal from this tragic history alone. Many have confessed and labored to atone for this sin, but mostly within the confines of our own religious houses and apostolic works. Because we are profoundly sorry, we stand before God—and before you, the descendants of those whom we enslaved—and we apologize for what we have done and what we have failed to do,” Father Kesicki said.

“Agreeing with poet and playwright Ntozake Shange that apologies ‘don’t open doors, they don’t bring the sun back,’ we apologize nonetheless, hoping to imagine a new future.

“With the pain that will never leave us, we resist moving on,” he added, “but embrace moving forward...with hope.”

Sandra Green Thomas, president of GU272 Descendants Association, spoke during the liturgy.

“I have been away from Georgetown a long time. I have been away from the faith of my forefathers and my foremothers, the Catholic faith, for an even longer time,” she began, “but it’s funny how the things you were taught as a child, and then thought you had abandoned, all at once and without warning come back.

“These teachings from youth inform our decisions, color our perceptions, guide our steps and sometimes trip us up.” That persisting faith, she said, was a testament to the Catholic faith preserved by the 272 under circumstances few could imagine today.

Though discrimination and prejudice remain wound up in the American experience, “I know that the pain and suffering endured by African-Americans has been lessened by each generation,” Ms. Thomas said. The suffering still known today, she said, was “dwarfed by the experience of the stalwart people ripped from their homes and sent to Louisiana” in 1838.

Like other enslaved people of their time, “their pain was unparalleled; their pain is still here. It burns in the soul of every person of African descent in the United States,” she said. “It lives in people, some of whom have no knowledge of its origin but who cope with the ever present longing and lack it causes.”

African-Americans “have hungered and thirsted for the promise of America, the equality of man, the pursuit of happiness” but have only been offered “meager scraps.”

Through this historic ordeal, a faith that transcended their circumstances has been “a necessary tool in the survival kit” of African-Americans.

“What group in this country has demonstrated more faith, more belief in the American promise more belief in heaven in the final communion with God and the saints than African Americans,” Ms. Thomas asked.

“For the 272 I believe that their Catholic faith enabled them to transcend,” she said. “No matter how incongruous their existence was with the gospel of God’s love and protection, they clung to their faith and even when they were deprived of the opportunity to practice it, they remained faithful and passed their faith on to subsequent generations.”

During his homily, Father Kesicki had said: “Justly aggrieved sisters and brothers: having acknowledged our sin and sorrow, having tendered an apology, we make bold to ask—on bended knee—forgiveness. Though we think it right and just to ask, we acknowledge that we have no right to it. Forgiveness is yours to bestow—only in your time and in your way.”

Ms. Thomas in her remarks seemed to have already offered a reply to his plea.

“The certainty of forgiveness upon an act of contrition is one of the most hopeful and joyful aspects of the faith and its sacrament of penance,” she said. “Penance, although personal and sometimes private, is not self-determined; penance is not easy; penance is not self-serving; penance is not for public show; but penance is necessary.

“So I return, no, we the descendants return, to our ancestors’ home place, acknowledging contrition, offering forgiveness, hoping for penance and more important seeking justice for them and ourselves.”

Today’s events include the dedication of a campus building, Isaac Hawkins Hall. It will be named for the first enslaved person listed in documents related to the 1838 sale. The university also will rededicate a second building, Anne Marie Becraft Hall, for a free woman of color who was one of the first teachers of Catholic black girls in the town of Georgetown. These buildings originally were named for Georgetown Jesuits who had been involved with the sale.

In the fall of 2015, Georgetown University President John DeGioia convened the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation to make recommendations on how best to acknowledge and recognize the university’s historical relationship to slavery. On September 1, 2016, the Working Group released a report that included a series of recommendations that are guiding the university’s ongoing efforts. These events are the result of these recommendations as well as an ongoing consultation process among the Georgetown community and the descendant community.

"The expression of contrition that we offer today,” stated President of Georgetown University John DeGioia, “guides, permeates [and] animates our ongoing work for justice. We build a more just world with honest reflection on our past and a commitment to a faith that does justice."

A gospel choir punctuated Tuesday's event with moving psalms and hymns, including “Precious Lord” and “Amazing Grace.” Intercessions for contrition and hope and an invitation to remembrance rounded out the service.

Members from Georgetown’s Working Group also shared their experiences. Jessica Tillson, a descendant of Isaac Hawkins, explained that as an infant her daughter had been saved by a medical advancement supported by Georgetown. She found in this instance a moment of reconciliation between the pain and suffering of her ancestors and the actions of Georgetown, and she expressed hope for further healing.

“The door’s open now. Leave it open,” said Leon Williams, the great great grandson of Isaac Hawkins. “Keep it open, and things’ll get better.”

This story has been updated. 

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James MacGregor
6 months ago

God forgives and forgets. People hang on to grief until it turns to despair. How many times in the past few years have we read different versions of this same article? No more need to be said. Yawn! I'll get another cup of coffee.

John Walton
6 months ago

Yes, a sin forgiven is a sin forgotten.

Thomas Farrelly
6 months ago

Frankly, such groveling seems bizarre, coming from someone who was not alive when these unfortunate slaves were owned and sold. Nor is it clear that the descendants, two hundred years later, have any special right to compensation. Let Georgetown continue to do whatever good works are within its power, for all men and society at large.

Richard Bell
6 months ago

This ceremony is a curiosity.
Do Roman Catholics, or specifically Jesuits, believe that a sinner's descendant is guilty of his sin? Or do they simply believe that an institution, as perpetual, bears abiding guilt for its past wrongs and that some of an institution's wrongs may be sins?
Do Roman Catholics, or specifically Jesuits, believe that a victim's descendant is a victim too? If so, do they believe that the descendant-victim has inherited the ancestor-victim's power to forgive?

Vincent Gaglione
6 months ago

It may be lousy theology on my part but I don’t believe that God forgives and forgets. Rather God forgives and in His mercy ignores what cannot be forgotten.

He expects that the harm done in sin be repaired, made whole, and not ever repeated, though He is mindful of the repeated sinfulness of human beings. In this case the repair took over a century!

I did not yawn when I read this story. It is a storyline not so frequent in Christian circles or denominations anywhere in the world. The repair is at best partial because those against whom the sin was committed can never be made whole. And we shall never know what irreparable harm was visited on descendants as a result of what was done.

What struck me most since the story broke months ago is the tenacity of Faith and to Roman Catholicism of those who were sold and their descendants. Their witness makes the Faith of most of us look weak indeed! More so, when one realizes that black Catholics until about 80 years ago were often denied entrance to ordination and religious communities and were forced to worship in segregated churches and pews. That alone should inhibit any comments that might be aimed to diminish or denigrate this story. St Katherine Drexel, pray for us!

Bruce Snowden
6 months ago

I feel the Georgetown Liturgy repenting Jesuit enslavement of 272 Black Americans in 1838 is very commendable. We all want to forget our sins of the past, a good thing as we trust God has long forgiven repented and absolved moral ineptitudes. So it is healthy to “let go and let God” as the saying goes. David however, did have a hard time forgetting the past lamenting psalmologically, “My sin is ever before me!” Done correctly, also a good thing!

Yes the Georgetown sin long gone, but graphically imaged in a crucifix, every sin written in the Agony of Jesus and signed in His Blood. I see the Georgetown Liturgy as a reminder, not only of its sin but also an acknowledgement of God’s forgiveness. With a wink of his eye Jesus asks smilingly, “Sin? What sin?” Sin acknowledge, Sin repented, Sin, absolved, Sin gone, thank God! Let’s high five the Jesuits for having the honesty to publicly pray as David did and as the holy Capuchin Brother St. Conrad of Parzham liked to say, “One look at the Cross and I know what I have to do!”

James MacGregor
6 months ago

RE: Vincent's comments --
The civilian press certainly had a field day with the story. They love this stuff. NY Times, NBC News, Fox, US Today, CNN, etc.

Beth Cioffoletti
6 months ago

This is a profoundly important moment in the history of slavery in America, Catholicism, and Georgetown University.

The sin is being seen and acknowledged. Our souls can finally begin to heal.

The Catholic slaveholders of colonial Maryland are my ancestors. Some of my cousins are descended from the Africans that they enslaved. I carry both sides of this story in who I am as an American, and as a Catholic.

I am deeply grateful for this prayer and ceremony. Yes, the door is now open. Thank you for opening it.

Philip Devine
6 months ago

Sorry to be a spoilsport, but I am dubious about repenting for other people's sins. The temptation to self-righteousness is too great: we are better than our ancestors because we never faced their temptations. Instead, the money for the ceremony could have been spent on a contribution to the Coalition against Slavery and Trafficking, which is fighting these horrors even as we speak. (Yes, they continue today.) God, I believe, prefers helping our neighbors to picking over our souls.

Bruce Snowden
6 months ago

Hi Philip, How could you not be "repentant for other people's sins?" Didn't the Father ask Jesus precisely that in Redemption, that he should take on himself the sins of us all and on Calvary beg repentance, "forgiveness" for them, repentance necessary to receive "forgiveness" on our behalf?

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