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St. Louis archdiocese releases long-awaited report on Catholic slaveholding

Jesse Bogan, St. Louis Post-Dispatch on

Published in News & Features

ST. LOUIS — Louis William DuBourg was just a baby in 1767 when his father, a ship captain and merchant, embarked on a journey from West Africa to the Caribbean with 270 enslaved people aboard. Only 157 of them made it across the Atlantic alive.

The younger DuBourg was also bold. He grew up to be a famous Roman Catholic priest, who, as the first leader of what became the Archdiocese of St. Louis, bought and sold slaves.

St. Louis Bishop Joseph Rosati, the next leader of all things Catholic for an enormous new swath of the United States, enslaved at least 23 people. In 1834, he paid $250 down for Aspasia LeCompte and her child and was charged 6% interest on the remaining $250 balance. She sued for her freedom and accused Rosati of assaulting her.

Many of the personal papers of Archbishop Peter Kenrick, at the helm from 1843 to 1895, were destroyed, but surviving records show he was a slaveowner who enforced segregation in parishes and schools.

Those were among the details in a long-awaited, 95-page report released Saturday by the Archdiocese of St. Louis detailing the history of slaveholding in the church. In addition to early religious figures like DuBourg, Rosati and Kenrick, the report also highlights the slaveholding history of icons like St. Rose Philippine Duchesne and lower-level clergy.

For years, Black Catholics in St. Louis have said that the legacy still shapes the archdiocese and that something more meaningful should be done to grapple with the church's history. The archdiocese hopes the report, six years in the making, is a step toward forgiveness.

"This research is not an end, only a beginning," Eric Fair, director of Archives and Records for the archdiocese, told a group of about 100 people gathered on Saturday at the Old Cathedral for the "Forgive Us Our Trespasses" Maafa Procession. Titled after the Swahili word for "disaster," the third annual event commemorates two million lives lost during the transatlantic slave trade.

Today, the Archdiocese of St. Louis — formerly known as the "Rome of the West" — covers only the city and 10 surrounding counties. But its archives hold a trove of historical details that researchers have mined to give a fuller account of Catholic slaveholding.

While some Catholic religious orders, such as the Jesuits, have already revealed more, others have lagged behind.

After previously refusing to disclose the identities of dozens of former slaves found in church sacramental records, old financial ledgers and letters, Saturday's report publicized their names for the first time in writing. They've identified 99 people so far and included some of their stories in the report. Many are listed by first name only or brief description: "Henry," "Lady," "Chloe and Jerry."

During a church service that preceded the 1-mile Maafa Procession, Fair apologized on behalf of early bishops named in the report and other leaders who "perpetuated" slavery.

"Here in St. Louis, these names are all familiar to us, but the labor and efforts of these enslaved people contributed just as much to the building of the local Catholic Church," he said.

Some who survived the Middle Passage were bought and sold by Catholics in the same area as Saturday's service and procession.

 

"We acknowledge the legacy of slavery in this area — the blood, the sweat and the tears of enslaved people that soak the earth beneath our feet in St. Louis, Missouri," Frances Warren Brown, of St. Josephine Bakhita Church, said from the pulpit Saturday at the Old Cathedral. "This legacy persists today, as we continue to work towards racial justice, equity, liberation and community."

St. Louis Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski said from the pulpit that enslavement "continues today in racism." He said acknowledgment and asking forgiveness are key pieces of the new report.

"It is a document where we say we can only move forward if we know our history," he said.

Rozanski, a successor of the early leaders mentioned in the report, said he draws hope from the example of Cardinal Joseph Ritter, who, amid protest, ordered St. Louis Catholic schools desegregated in 1947.

"(Ritter) took great criticism because of his faith, but yet he stood for what was right," Rozanski said. "He stood for Christ. He stood with courage."

Asked in an interview if Rozanski had plans to incorporate the findings of the report into the Catholic school curriculum, like at Bishop DuBourg High School in the St. Louis Hills neighborhood, he said: "First of all, we just want to get the report out."

Asked if money would be set aside to find living descendants of those enslaved, Rozanski said: "We are certainly looking for any descendants so that they can be aware of the report. We'll see how we need to proceed from here."

That early church leaders owned slaves has been known for "a long, long time," said Margaret Toney, 69, one of about 7,500 Black Catholics in the archdiocese. But public acknowledgment was noteworthy to her.

"You can't go forward without asking for forgiveness, and even though there is nobody in this (group) that was enslaved or owned slaves, we still need to acknowledge it," she said in an interview at the Old Cathedral. "I am proud of my church."

Meanwhile, as more Catholic organizations have released details about their slaveholding history, some remain on the sidelines.

A group of sisters from the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary, which started what became Visitation Academy in Town and Country, owned slaves. A draft report outlining that history has been compiled but not released.

"One of our challenges is how to properly communicate our story to the Viz community at large, and we think they should hear it for the first time from us," Ann Hein, a volunteer with Visitation, told the Post-Dispatch by email. "We are working hard on the right methods and timing for that communication."


©2024 STLtoday.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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