Lay Low and Weep: The Tragic Legacy of Catholic Residential Schools

Lay Low and Weep: The Tragic Legacy of Catholic Residential Schools June 28, 2021

Last week, 751 unmarked graves were discovered at the site of a former residential school in Saskatchewan, Canada. It was the second such discovery in as many weeks. The graves likely represent only a fraction of the unreported deaths of indigenous children at these facilities. For those not familiar with the history, the Canadian government ran residential schools with the support of the Catholic Church from about the 1850’s to 1970’s. The goal of these institutions was not to educate, as the word school suggests, but rather to assimilate indigenous children into White culture. To achieve this end, administrators used brutal tactics such as manual labor, physical abuse, and isolation to break the spirit of indigenous children. Catholic religious orders managed a full 70% of these facilities.

Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash

The Catholic Church and the Legacy of Colonialism

Christianity is a religion of evangelization. The Gospels urge us to go out and spread the good news, and the early days of the faith are marked by brave men and women risking their lives to do just that. But human beings have a horrifying ability to invert every good and create it’s evil counterpart. Power has a lot to do with this. It only took a couple centuries for Christianity to grow from the underdog to the religion of power. Evangelization became colonialism. Christianity also became – bizarrely considering its origins – the religion of Whiteness. Spreading Christianity no longer had much to do with the Gospels and Jesus Christ, and everything to do with White Supremacy and cultural domination. This is how Catholic religious orders, tasked through faith with promoting the fathomless depths of Christ’s love, ended up waging cultural genocide.

Canada is far from the only place where the Catholic Church participated in colonial violence. Religious figures such as Junipero Serra, who have long been revered as saintly missionaries, are being reevaluated in light of their cruel tactics and the violence they perpetrated on indigenous communities. However, Canadian residential schools are unique in their longevity. While they began in the 1850’s, the last residential school didn’t close until 1990. They were also highly systematic, effective and – most horrifying – focused exclusively on children. Unlike other recent atrocities, such as the sex-abuse scandal in the United States, the Church’s activities in residential schools took place in broad daylight, with the full knowledge and support of the Canadian government. No one involved felt ashamed.

Grappling with Residential Schools

I feel an overwhelming sadness as a write this. The heaviness is such that I’m not fully sure what I ought to write. There are no actions that anyone could take to undo the pain inflicted on these innocent children and their families. Their brazen disregard for human life lead so many young kids to perish from disease, hunger, abuse, or suicide. Many more survived but lived traumatized. There is no remedy for that. What we can do, first and foremost, is call these events what they were: evil. Those of us who hold that our faith is in Jesus must react as Jesus did when confronted with the devil. We must call him by his name. Thus far, the Vatican has yet to do this. Despite a request from Prime Minister Trudeau as far back as 2017, Pope Francis has yet to formally apologize for the Church’s role in the residential school system. (The Canadian government has apologized.)

Of course, apologies are fruitless without actions. The next step for the institutional Church should be to implement reparations to the communities harmed by their actions. The Church certainly has the resources to do this, but as of yet they do not have the will. The integration of evil within the institutional Church is still too strong. They have too much pride and too little willingness to admit that their actions were not merely mistakes but violent crimes. Followers of Jesus Christ have no excuse for actions such as these. They were not ignorant of right and wrong. They didn’t care.

Lay Low and Weep

For regular Catholics, residential schools represent yet another proof of the infiltration of evil within our Church. While we bicker over petty squabbles, the full horror of these tragedy has failed to capture our attention. Perhaps it’s too hard to look at. Thousands of children died in residential schools. 150,ooo attended. Every one of these kids was separated from their family, stripped of their customs and language, and treated as less than human. If this doesn’t serve as definitive evidence of the existence of pure evil in the world, and in our Church, then I don’t know what can. For me, it only means one thing: some of us are damned.

When will the Church repent?


About Emily Claire Schmitt
Emily Claire Schmitt is a playwright and screenwriter focused on uncovering the mystical in the modern world. She is a Core Member of The Skeleton Rep(resents) and sits on the board of The Catholics Artists Connection. All opinions are her own unless she has recently changed them. Follow her on Twitter at @Eclaire082. You can read more about the author here.

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