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Our History of Enslavement

Slavery, Accountability, Reconciliation
Past and Present: Confronting our Racism

Eliza “Liza” Nebbit (1811-1889) “Colored Child of the Sacred Heart, first slave what was brought in dis Convent by Mother Duchesne.” Eliza’s closing in a letter she dictated in 1880  to Rev. Mother Randall, Superior in New York.

As the Society of the Sacred Heart, United States – Canada Province celebrates 200 years of the congregation’s presence in the United States, the religious have committed themselves to a better understanding of the ongoing issue of racism in the world and the Society of the Sacred Heart’s participation in the historic sin of slavery.

Along with bishops, priests, the Jesuits and most of the families of their students, the communities of the Religious of the Sacred Heart, from the time of Philippine until the Civil War, owned, bought and sold enslaved persons in the slave states of Missouri and Louisiana. Enslaved persons built the buildings, made the bricks and sustained the foundations. They worked side by side with the sisters, taking care of the children, cooking, washing and gardening.

Although the sad reality of slave-owning by the Society of the Sacred Heart in the United States has not been hidden, this history and acknowledgement has not been actively publicized. Information has been presented in Society publications as early as 1957, as recently as 2010, and in the 2017 Spirituality Forum sponsored by the Society. Philippine was a woman of her time, and the Society must reconcile with this painful part of our past.

(Photo: Eliza “Liza” Nebbit (1811-1889) “Colored Child of the Sacred Heart, first slave what was brought in dis Convent by Mother Duchesne.” Eliza’s closing in a letter she dictated in 1880  to Rev. Mother Randall, Superior in New York.)

Beginning the Conversation: Forming the Committee
In the fall of 2016, the provincial team constituted a committee with a mandate to focus on the Society’s role in racism and slavery, The Committee on Slavery, Accountability and Reconciliation*. The provincial team wanted to uncover the truths of people’s stories, to honor their memories and heal relationships. The Committee understood that its work would be important in moving the conversation about slavery and racism forward to effect change and to be a positive contribution to the larger conversation around race and social justice in the world we live in today.

The committee has been active in research and in sharing their findings with the province. During this time of research, the sisters are sharing historical facts, attempting to locate the descendants of enslaved persons who lived on property owned by the Society of the Sacred Heart, and making recommendations to the provincial team to take measures to address this painful chapter in the Society’s history. As part of their recommendation, the committee works to transform ongoing racist attitudes and behaviors among themselves as RSCJ and in the wider Sacred Heart family today. These are the first steps in ongoing conversations, actions steps to reconcile and in healing.

“We must engage in deeper research with a view to telling the fuller story. This includes confronting a painful part of our legacy and committing to truth, healing and reconciliation for a better future,” said Carolyn Osiek, RSCJ, chair of the Committee on Slavery, Accountability and Reconciliation.

Discovering this history
It is known that the Society of the Sacred Heart had enslaved persons in Grand Coteau, Louisiana; Natchitoches, Louisiana; Convent, Louisiana; and St. Louis and Florissant, Missouri. Continued research by RSCJ and other members of the committee is ongoing.

Most of the historical information found to date is from Grand Coteau. The Society’s founders of Grand Coteau, Mother Eugénie Audé and Sister Mary Layton, arrived in 1821 and started a school. The first enslaved persons on the property may have been loaned to the founders by nearby Catholic families who had daughters in the school, such as the Hardey family, slaveholders from Maryland whose daughter, Mary Ann (later Aloysia), was one of the first students.

Mrs. Charles Smith, the donor of the school property, had promised an enslaved family to the convent, although the committee has not found a record of who they were. The research reveals that Mrs. Smith owned 25 enslaved persons in 1820, so some of the earliest enslaved persons on the property may have come from her. The school property was surrounded by plantations owned by settlers with roots in Maryland. When the Jesuits founded a school in the same town in 1838, the Jesuits and the Society of the Sacred Heart shared enslaved persons between the schools and property.

During this time, a number of young women entered the Society of the Sacred Heart. Many were from slaveholding families, such as the Gardiners and Trichels, which meant their dowry and/or inheritances included enslaved persons.

Slave Genealogy Research: Identifying descendants
Maureen J. Chicoine, RSCJ, is one of the committee members doing genealogy research to identify descendants of enslaved persons once owned by the Society of the Sacred Heart in the United States. Through her work, she has identified descendants. She and Irma Dillard, RSCJ, also a member of the committee, recently met with Joseph (Sony) Eaglin, a descendant of Frank Hawkins and Jenny Eaglin Hawkins.

“There was no consistent way in which the purchases, births or arrivals of various enslaved persons were recorded,” Sister Chicoine shared. “When the names of the enslaved persons in the various files are compiled, there are possibly 70.”

Records at Convent, Louisiana, indicate that there were also as many as 80 enslaved persons at Saint Michael between 1828 and 1865. Four families from Saint Michael in Convent can be identified with a degree of certainty as enslaved persons of the Society, three of these having descendants. Efforts are being made to research their descendants using census, church records and other sources.

As part of the Society’s efforts of reconciliation, in late September 2018, the Academy of the Sacred Heart in Grand Coteau will host a gathering of descendants and the Society of the Sacred Heart. That day, there will be a dedication of a monument in the parish cemetery naming the enslaved persons of the convent known to be buried there. The museum at the school will have an area dedicated to the convent’s history and acknowledgment of its role in slavery. The names of all known enslaved persons will be part of this area of the museum. A plaque will be placed at the slave quarters naming those living there in its first years. A ritual memorial of the ancestors designed by their descendants will also be part of the event.

There is still much more to do to reconcile the Society’s history and participation in slavery and for healing to commence. The Society looks forward to continuing this dialogue and publicly confronting racism.

*The Committee on Slavery, Accountability and Reconciliation: Maureen Chicoine, RSCJ; Irma Dillard, RSCJ; Marilyn McMorrow, RSCJ; Catherine Mooney; Carolyn Osiek, RSCJ (chair); and Emory Webre