Sunday, September 23, was full of emotions as descendants of known enslaved persons by the Society of the Sacred Heart gathered at St. Charles Borromeo Church and Academy of the Sacred Heart in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, to remember and honor their ancestors.
This gathering, formally named “We Speak Your Names,” marked the first of the Society’s efforts towards reconciliation for their complicity and participation in the sin of slavery.
It was planned by a committee of seven descendants, supported by the Society’s committee on Slavery, Accountability and Reconciliation, in an effort to honor and speak the names of their ancestors and reclaim and remember their family history.
The gathering commenced in the church building, and Brother Frank Authello Andrus Jr. captured everyone’s attention, opening with an African chant and song with drum accompaniment.
“Our brother Frank has let us know we are here, we are here, and God is here this evening,” said Irma Dillard, RSCJ, to an emotionally charged crowd following Brother Frank’s final call.
After an introduction by Provincial Sheila Hammond, RSCJ, and descendant Dorson Purdy, the group processed outside to the adjacent cemetery, where monuments had been placed, bearing the names of each family of the known persons enslaved by the Society in Grand Coteau.
Brother Frank offered a song, and descendants led a libation ritual, a ritual African people use to call on their ancestors to join them as witnesses to sacred occasions, followed by a blessing of the monuments and a reading. The cemetery gathering ended with each family of descendants placing a white rose on the monuments while descendant Mary Evelyn sang a cappella.
A reception followed at the school where all gathered for a southern meal and conversation. Descendants and RSCJ were offered tours of a newly restored museum at the Academy, courtesy of Donna Collins, RSCJ, as well as an outside look at the slave quarters, the housing where their ancestors once resided. Recently, a plaque identifying the building and naming the families had been installed.
The evening concluded with a service in the Academy chapel lead by Dorson Purdy, who offered a heartfelt reflection and read aloud each known name of those enslaved by the Society.
“I’m standing here, and I’m looking at this beautiful woodwork, knowing my ancestors had a hand in that. I take pride in being born to these people,” he remarked.
Purdy added, “Today is a healing for me. The record stands. Today did not have to happen. We might have never known so I am grateful to the good sisters, to Sister Maureen (Chicoine) and Sister Irma and the church, to be standing here holding my ancestors, honoring my ancestors. I am able to feel their presence, to walk in their footsteps, to know that I am part of something beautiful and strong, and that their legacy will not be forgotten.”