The recent unearthing of the remains of 215 children in a mass burial site at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia has reenergized calls for the Catholic Church to fully account and atone for its brutal practices and legacies of colonization in the Americas.
However, the existence of unmarked graves at Indian residential schools in North America — which housed hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children taken from their families from the late 19th century to the late 20th century — is not new knowledge.
For decades, survivors of these institutions and their descendants have testified about the indignities and abuses — physical, pyscho-emotional and sexual — that Indigenous children suffered often at the hands of white Catholic priests and sisters.
In 2015, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission even concluded that its nation’s Indian residential school system — explicitly designed to suppress Indigenous identity and facilitate Native American assimilation into white society — administered a program of “cultural genocide.”
Now, Catholic faithful concerned with reconciliation and peace stand at another monumental crossroad in the fight for truth-telling and racial justice within church boundaries.
Last summer’s global protests against police violence, white supremacy and anti-Blackness prompted calls for the church to acknowledge and formally atone for its role as the first and largest corporate slaveholder and Christian practitioner of racial segregation in the Americas. Protests also turned attention to how the whitewashing of Catholic history has aided the erasure of the experiences of Catholics of color who suffered under these institutions.
A 2014 roundtable discussion published in the Journal of Africana Religions reminded scholars that “most of the people who have lived their lives under the sign of Catholicism (in the Americas including the Caribbean) have been Native American and African descended, not European.”
A truthful accounting of Catholic history also teaches us that the mass burial site at Kamloops is part of a constellation of unmarked gravesites for people of Indigenous and African descent located at numerous Catholic convents, monasteries, schools, parishes, missions and orphanages across the Americas.
Years ago, I traveled to Kentucky’s Holy Land to research the history of Black female religious life in America and locate the grave of a prominent Black Catholic laywoman enslaved by the extended family of early U.S. bishops John Lancaster Spalding and Martin Spalding — themselves also slavers. That was when I learned of this painful history.
Lebanon, Kentucky’s historic St. Augustine Cemetery was the first segregated cemetery I ever visited, and I immediately noticed that most graves in the “colored section” lacked markers denoting who was buried there.
The following day, I visited the oldest Catholic sisterhood in Kentucky and toured its cemetery. Again I witnessed the profound disregard that white Catholics had for the lives and deaths of enslaved Black Catholics.
Archival records reveal that the Sisters of Loretto owned and exploited the labor of more than 40 enslaved women, men and children between 1812 and 1865.
All the enslaved persons who died at the order’s convents and schools in Kentucky and Missouri were buried in unmarked graves. Those buried at the motherhouse were also interned without headstones. Some were buried near a tree stump on which unknown mourners — likely family members — carved a heart.
In 2000, the sisters apologized for their history of slaveholding and built a monument dedicated to the captives — a memorial on which the known names of the order’s enslaved people were etched.
However, decades before, like many of their counterparts, the congregation adopted a strict code of silence about their slaveholding past — failing to teach their members about it, and according to one community historian, censoring typed references to this history from 1929 to the 1970s.
Yet, scattered archival references reveal that descendants of some of the enslaved buried at the Loretto motherhouse periodically came and received permission to visit their ancestors’ gravesites during the Jim Crow era.
Refusing to participate in the erasure of their ancestors’ lives and labors, these progeny — specifically Black women — powerfully proclaimed the dignity and legacy of the enslaved people who built the American church.
Knowing the stories and lived experiences of Indigenous and Black Catholics is critical to our understanding of the American Catholic past. They force us to acknowledge the Indigenous and African roots of the American church and demand the rejection of the myths wielded to silence the church’s dark past and ties to white supremacy.
That many of the American church’s earliest and most prominent leaders, male and female, were violent and unrepentant colonizers, slavers and segregationists is a searing truth that millions of Catholics of color have testified to in the face of skepticism and denial for centuries.
The church will not be able to facilitate racial justice, reconciliation and peace until all Catholic faithful acknowledge and accept these indisputable truths — without excuse.
Until then, truth tellers and seekers will continue the arduous task of locating and marking graves of those whose stories were never meant to be remembered.
Shannen Dee Williams is the Albert Lepage Assistant Professor of History at Villanova University and author of the Catholic News Service column, “The Griot’s Cross.” Her first book, “Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle,” will be published in April 2022. Follow her on Twitter @BlkNunHistorian.
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