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Society of Jesus Apologizes for the Sins of Jesuit Slaveholding at Georgetown University Liturgy

By Becky Sindelar

“Today the Society of Jesus, which helped to establish Georgetown University and whose leaders enslaved and mercilessly sold your ancestors, stands before you to say:  We have greatly sinned, in our thoughts and in our words, in what we have done and in what we have failed to do,” Fr. Timothy Kesicki, SJ, said in public apology today to nearly 100 descendants of slaves gathered at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. “The Society of Jesus prays with you today because we have greatly sinned, and because we are profoundly sorry.”



Fr. Kesicki publicly apologized to descendants of slaves, whom the Jesuits sold in 1838.

This morning’s Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition, and Hope brought together descendants of the 272 men, women, and children Jesuits enslaved and then sold in 1838, an effort to pay off debts and keep the nation’s first Catholic university afloat. The liturgy also included Bishop Barry C. Knestout, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Washington; Fr. Robert Hussey, SJ, provincial of the Maryland Province Jesuits; Fr. Ron Mercier, SJ, provincial of the Central and Southern Province Jesuits; Fr. Brian Paulson, SJ, provincial of the Chicago-Detroit Province Jesuits; and Fr. Scott Santarosa, SJ, provincial of the Oregon Province Jesuits.




Father Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference, the organization that represents the Jesuits of the United States and Canada, spoke on behalf of the Jesuits of the US. “When we remember that together with those 272 souls we received the same sacraments; read the same Scriptures; said the same prayers; sang the same hymns; and praised the same God; how did we, the Society of Jesus, fail to see us all as one body in Christ? We betrayed the very name of Jesus for whom our least Society is named,” he said.



Leroy Baker and Onita Estes-Hicks read from the Prophet Isaiah.

The public apology was just one of the recommendations in a September 2016 report from the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation, established at Georgetown in 2015 to acknowledge and recognize the university’s historical relationship to slavery. The group’s recommendations also included giving descendants of the 272 slaves the same preferential advantage in the admissions process that the children of faculty, staff, and alumni receive; renaming two buildings named for the Jesuits who arranged the slave sale; and creating an on-campus memorial to the slaves.

At the liturgy, intercessions for contrition and hope were offered, and Sandra Green Thomas, one of the descendants and president of the GU272 Descendants Association, also gave remarks.



Sandra Green Thomas, a descendant and president of the GU272 Descendants Association, spoke at the liturgy.

The service concluded with a blessing from Bishop Knestout, and those gathered sang “This Little Light of Mine.” Following the ceremony, Georgetown dedicated two buildings that formerly honored the Jesuit leaders responsible for the 1838 sale.



Isaac Hawkins Hall, formerly known as Mulledy Hall, was named for the first enslaved person listed in documents related to the 1838 sale.

Anne Marie Becraft Hall, formerly known as McSherry Hall, was renamed for a free woman of color who established a school in the town of Georgetown for black girls. The school was one of the first such educational endeavors in the District of Columbia. Becraft later joined the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the oldest active Roman Catholic sisterhood in the Americas established by women of African descent.



Fr. Matthew Carnes, SJ, read the intercessions for contrition.

Today’s events also include a reflection hour and lunch reception. The date was selected because it falls two days after DC Emancipation Day, which honors the emancipation of slaves in the District on April 16, 1862.



Bishop Knestout led those gathered in praying the "Our Father."

The day before the liturgy, the Society of Jesus hosted a private Mass and reception for Jesuits and descendants. In his invitation letter to descendants, Fr. Hussey spoke about his hope that the Mass would “foster a spirit of healing and continue to move us forward on a path of reconciliation.”



From left: Fr. Santarosa, Fr. Kesicki, Fr. Hussey, Fr. Mercier, and Fr. Paulson
on April 17 at Georgetown University

This was echoed by Fr. Kesicki in his homily today: “With the pain that will never leave us, we resist moving on, but embrace moving forward ... with hope.”

Father Kesicki also asked for forgiveness, while acknowledging the Society has no right to it. “Justly aggrieved sisters and brothers: having acknowledged our sin and sorrow, having tendered an apology, we make bold to ask — on bended knee — forgiveness. Though we think it right and just to ask, we acknowledge that we have no right to it. Forgiveness is yours to bestow — only in your time and in your way.”

Do you want to learn more about vocations to the Society of Jesus? Visit www.jesuitvocations.org for more information.


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