Noting that the sin of slavery was intolerable and the complicity of Christians unforgivable, the Jesuit order — one of the Catholic Church’s most powerful group of priests — admitted its guilt for its role in owning and selling slaves.
One of those sales, in 1838, of 272 slaves, was made on behalf of Georgetown University, which saved the fledgling school but ruined hundreds of lives, tearing families asunder, condemning men, women and children to lives of cruel bondage.
This month, the Jesuits and Georgetown repented.
In a “Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition and Hope,” hosted at Georgetown, the university’s president and Jesuit leaders issued emotional mea culpas 179 years in the making, CNN reported.
“We express our solemn contrition for our participation in slavery, and the benefit our institution received,” said Georgetown President John DeGioia. “We cannot hide from this truth, tbury this truth, ignore this truth. Slavery remains the original evil in our republic, an evil that our university was complicit in.”
More than 100 descendants of slaves sold by the Maryland Jesuits attended the April 18 service, many wearing green ribbons to symbolize hope and new life.
They processed in Healy Hall to the strains of “Amazing Grace,” sung by a gospel choir.
Some wiped away tears during the readings and prayers, and stood to applaud when Mary D. Williams-Wagner, a slave descendant, read Frederick Douglass’s remarks about Christian slave-holders.
“Their pain was unparalleled,” Sanda Green Thomas, another slave descendant, said of her ancestors. “Their pain is still here. It burns in the soul of every person of African descent in the United States.”
Georgetown isn’t the only American college with ties to the slave trade, CNN reported. All Ivy League schools, except for Cornell University, were also complicit in some way, historians said. Many those schools were also founded by religious groups.
But some American Jesuits in the United States said their slaveholding past is particularly painful, especially as they see racism’s lingering stains on modern society.
“This isn’t just a Maryland issue,” said the Rev. Timothy Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, the society’s top official in North America. “In a sense, all Jesuits in the United States are descendants of those Jesuits who made the decisions to hold slaves and in this case, sell slaves. We don’t look at as their sin; we look at it as our sin.”
Georgetown also moved to atone for its historical links to slavery by renaming buildings after African-Americans, including for one of 272 slaves sold to help fund the school.
The packed dedications were the latest attempt by U.S. Catholic-run universities to make amends for ties to slavery and racism.
The movement gained force in late 2015 when students at dozens of U.S. colleges protested legacies of racism on campus, according to Reuters.
Harvard, Brown, Princeton, Yale and Duke are among schools that have addressed their links to slavery and racism.
Following protests, Yale University said in February it would change the name of a college dedicated to a 19th-century defender of slavery, John C. Calhoun.
At Georgetown, the 18,000-student university renamed two buildings that had honored school presidents who oversaw the 1838 sale of 272 slaves from church-affiliated plantations in Maryland.
One was named for Isaac Hawkins, whose name appeared at the head of the bill of sale, and a second was dedicated to Anne Marie Becraft, a black 19th-century educator.
“We offer this apology for the descendants and your ancestors humbly and without expectations, and we trust ourselves to God and the Spirit and the grace He freely offers to find ways to work together and build together,” DeGioia said.