American Catholics and the 1619 Project

American Catholics and the 1619 Project June 3, 2020


Pope Gregory XVI (1831-1846) condemned the slave trade, but not slavery itself.

American Catholics and Slavery

Throughout the centuries leading up to Emancipation, many slaveholders were Catholics. After the Jesuits landed in Maryland in 1634, they acquired land. And in the early 1700’s, they took on recently arrived African slaves to work the land. The idea was that the plantations would finance local Jesuit ministries.    

They weren’t alone. Throughout the South, several women’s religious communities did the same, including  the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, the Sisters of Loretto, and the Dominican Sisters of St. Catharine, all based in Kentucky. St. Elizabeth Seton didn’t own slaves, but her Sisters in Maryland did after her death. In Missouri, Vincentian Fathers owned slaves, but their Brothers refused to work alongside them in the fields.  In New Orleans, some Sisters brought their slaves with them to the convent as their “dowry.” 

At least one bishop owned a slave: Archbishop John Carroll of Baltimore, the nation’s first Catholic prelate. Others took great pains to defend the system. In December 1839, Pope Gregory XVI issued the Papal Bull In Supremo Apostolatus, which condemned the Atlantic slave trade (but not slavery itself). The otherwise progressive Bishop John England of Charleston, feared an anti-Catholic backlash. Through a series of published articles, he assured his Protestant neighbors the bull didn’t apply in the South. 


Catholics and Abolitionists

By the mid-nineteenth century, American Catholicism had become an immigrant Church, mainly composed of recent arrivals from Ireland and Germany. Historically speaking, the Abolitionist movement’s roots were Northern and Protestant. Unfortunately, so too was the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing movement. Therefore, many American Catholics placed Abolitionism and anti-Catholicism in the same category. Of course, there were many who were just plain prejudiced as well. 

Furthermore, in cities like New York and Boston, free African Americans were seen by recently arrived Catholic immigrant workers as labor competition. This resentment that ensued led to the New York City Draft Riots of 1863. Among the 105 casualties of that riot were eleven African Americans who were hanged by the largely Irish mob. 

Catholic Abolitionists

Although American Catholics were part of the system at all levels, some advocates for racial justice existed even then. In Brooklyn, Father Sylvester Malone was an Catholic abolitionist, a rare thing. So was his friend Father Thomas Farrell in Manhattan. In his will, Farrell left money for a Black Catholic parish. If the archdiocese didn’t act, Farrell stipulated that the money be given to a Protestant church. (St. Benedict the Moor was founded in 1883 in Manhattan as New York’s first Black parish.) 


Yesterday I offered a rationale for this week’s columns on race and white American Catholics, admittedly a difficult subject to discuss. But we have to. For better or for worse, it’s part of our American Catholic experience. And if we’re going to heal and grow both as a Church and as a nation, it has to be done.

Many Protestant Churches, most notably the Baptist, split North and South on slavery. Catholics basically sided themselves with prevailing opinion on whatever side of the Mason-Dixon line they found themselves. Was it moral cowardice? To a large extent, yes. But there were exceptions, like Sylvester Malone and Thomas Farrell. In time, the number of Catholic advocates for Civil Rights would grow, but as the song goes, that would be “a long time coming.”  

Tomorrow we’ll take a look at convents Black and white.

(Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons).  

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