Loading...
Loading...
Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Monique Trusclair MaddoxFebruary 27, 2024
Washington Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory leads a prayer service on Feb. 25, 2023, for enslaved people believed to be buried in the cemetery at Sacred Heart Parish in Bowie, Md. The property is on a former plantation once owned by members of the Society of Jesus in Maryland in the 1700s and 1800s. (OSV News photo/Mihoko Owada, Catholic Standard)Washington Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory leads a prayer service on Feb. 25, 2023, for enslaved people believed to be buried in the cemetery at Sacred Heart Parish in Bowie, Md. The property is on a former plantation once owned by members of the Society of Jesus in Maryland in the 1700s and 1800s. (OSV News photo/Mihoko Owada, Catholic Standard)  

On Sunday, April 16, 2016, I left Mass with a full heart. I remember that it was a beautiful day, but other details are indistinct to me now. Because moments later, my phone lit up with life-changing words that I never expected to see.

“272 Slaves Were Sold to Save Georgetown,” read the headline in The New York Times. “What Does It Owe Their Descendants?”

In that story, I saw mentions of Maringouin, La.—my hometown. I saw my parents’ and grandparents’ surnames on an 1838 bill of sale of 272 men, women and children. I would later learn that one of the children, 3-year-old Jackson Hawkins, was my mother’s great-grandfather, born into slavery and sold as a toddler by the Jesuits for a bit of profit. Another ancestor, Nace Butler, bore a name that showed his own parents’ devotion to the church that enslaved them—“Nace” is short for Ignatius.

How can I put into words the feelings that ran through me when I learned my family was owned and sold by my own church?

How can I put into words the feelings that ran through me when I learned my family was owned and sold by my own church? I could not even begin to understand how the Jesuit order, which boasts 52 saints and hundreds of members who have been beatified, could also have perpetrated, not only at Georgetown but over hundreds of years, one of the most profound crimes against humanity in modern history. For a time, I wasn’t sure how I would ever look a priest in the eye again.

Terms of reconciliation

In the eight years since that day, I and many other descendants of Jesuit enslavement have traveled a journey of the heart and soul. Even today, I remain confused and disillusioned to the point of numbness that my church not only committed this sin but also took hundreds of years to even confess that it was a sin. Still, the descendants have had no choice but to confront this aspect of our history. Its legacy courses through our family trees and never strays far from our minds. It has forever entangled our faith with our ancestors’ agony.

Yet when faced with the choice between hardening our hearts to the institution that tormented our families or opening our hearts in the spirit of reconciliation, we chose unity.

Individual Jesuits have taken our hands and begun to walk with us. But the weight of this sin hangs from the neck of the church—and only the church can reconcile with our shared past and take the necessary actions to restore the justice of God.

The terms have always been clear: Forgiveness is a spiritual undertaking that takes one individual to complete, while reconciliation is an external act that takes two. This partnership between the wrongdoers and the wronged is part of what makes reconciliation so difficult, and we descendants knew deep down that this was not a chapter of their history that Jesuits wanted to read. We also recognized that without reconciling with the past, the church would never be able to lead with integrity or authority. How would we look to our priests in the same way if they did not, in the words of St. Francis of Assisi, “heal wounds, unite what has fallen apart, and bring home those who have lost their way”?

We recognized that without reconciling with the past, the church would never be able to lead with integrity or authority.

It seems to me that my church is better at helping others who have lost their way than at recognizing when the church herself has lost her way. Perhaps this is why descendants will not let go of this vision of reconciliation. Our Catholic faith was passed down to us by our ancestors, and it is the only thing of value the church ever gave to them. We are compelled to help the church find her way and, most especially, to restore all that has been lost.

In addition, our commitment to restoring our ancestors’ dignity will not allow us to walk away. We cannot. The very fact of our existence means that their struggle to survive was not in vain, and we will not let it be. The church may have cast a long shadow of shame over our families 200 years ago, but we are committed to chasing it out with the bright light of truth.

At the same time, the church’s commitment to transforming the world through the values of the Gospel should not allow the institution to walk away either. This is long, difficult, occasionally messy work. But it is the work that God, in his wisdom, has set at our feet as an endeavor that neither of us can do alone.

Seeking to Understand Our Shared Past

Not long after I learned of the enslavement of my ancestors by the Jesuits, I read a letter dated Nov. 12, 1838. It was written by Father Peter Havermans, the Jesuit superior of the Newtown plantation, to the superior general in Rome, Father John Philip Roothaan. In the letter, Father Havermans expressed to the superior general his anguish at what he witnessed in 1838 with the sale of my ancestors. Father Havermans wrote just after the religious superior of the Jesuits’ Maryland Province and the ex-governor of Louisiana arrived at Newtown—or, as my ancestors would have known these men, the seller and buyer of those human lives.

In his letter, Father Havermans wrote:

One woman, more pious than the others, and at that time pregnant, most demanded my compassion. She was coming toward me so that for the last time she could greet me and seek benediction, and she observed as she was genuflecting: ‘If ever someone should have reason for despair, do I not now have it?’ ‘I do not know on what day the birth will come, whether on the road or sea.’ ‘What will become of me?’ ‘Why do I deserve this?’”

Her witness, mercifully documented by the anguished Father Havermans, is an invitation from our history and the souls who have gone before us.

I cannot craft the words to describe how her testimony affects me. Selling a pregnant woman violates every moral fiber in my soul. For her to genuflect before the priest knowing that another priest had performed the heinous transaction is abhorrent to me. If I sit alone with this and other such passages, who knows what emotions these excerpts will unleash?

We don’t just want programs to be funded—we want a partnership with the church. We want to rebuild our relationship.

While the emotions are important and essential to the process of healing and reconciliation, they are not enough. It is in the sharing, the companionship with others, and the prayer and discernment together about our past that we can find a more faith-filled response to our future. For I know that this is not my story alone; it is also the Jesuits’ story. The church’s story. It is our shared story.

The Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation was created so that we might rise to meet this moment in history. We have a billion-dollar vision to support the educational aspirations of descendants, to support elderly and infirm descendants, and to promote racial healing programs throughout America. But no matter how formidable a billion-dollar vision may sound, it is not an adequate response to what was taken from my family.

We don’t just want programs to be funded—we want a partnership with the church. We want to rebuild our relationship. Just as I will face my ancestors, Nace Butler and Isaac Hawkins, when I meet my eternal reward, leaders of the church may come face-to-face with Father Havermans and others who will have great interest in what Catholics have done since meeting descendants like me.

I pray that we all will be able to say that we took every opportunity to experience forgiveness, healing and spiritual renewal in our relationship with God and each other. The truth of the past is written, but the truth of the future is up to us. Let us begin again.

The latest from america

U.S. Catholics are more polarized than ever in how they view Pope Francis, even though majorities on both ends of the political spectrum have a positive view of the pope, according to a new survey.
In this special round table episode of “Inside the Vatican,” America Editor-in-Chief Father Sam Sawyer and the Executive Director of Outreach, America’s LGBT Catholic resource, Michael O’Loughlin, join host Colleen Dulle for a discussion on the document “Dignitas Infinita” and the pastoral
Inside the VaticanApril 12, 2024
Miles Teller stars in a scene from the movie "Whiplash." (CNS photo/courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)
Played by Miles Teller, Andrew falls prey to an obsession so powerful that it robs us of the clarity or freedom to make good choices.
John DoughertyApril 12, 2024
In one way or another, these collections bear the traces of the divine, of the needful Christ.
Delaney CoyneApril 12, 2024