Georgetown liturgy does penance for sale of 272 enslaved people in 1838

America Magazine (Jesuit)

“The Society of Jesus prays with you today because we have greatly sinned and because we are profoundly sorry,” said Timothy Kesicki, S.J., president, of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. Father Kesicki was speaking on behalf of the Society of Jesus in the United States at the Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition and Hope at Georgetown University. The liturgy was meant as a moment of acknowledgment of an institutional sin, committed to raise money to preserve Georgetown University—the sale of 272 men, women and children who had been the “property” of the Maryland Province in 1838 to plantations in Louisiana where many of their descendants still live.

“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?” Father Kesicki asked.

“We betrayed the very name of Jesus for whom our least society is named,” he told a hall crowded with some of the descendants of those 272, gathered in Washington, D.C., on April 18.

“Now, nearly 200 years later, we cannot heal from this tragic history alone. Many have confessed and labored to atone for this sin, but mostly within the confines of our own religious houses and apostolic works. Because we are profoundly sorry, we stand before God—and before you, the descendants of those whom we enslaved—and we apologize for what we have done and what we have failed to do,” Father Kesicki said.

“Agreeing with poet and playwright Ntozake Shange that apologies ‘don’t open doors, they don’t bring the sun back,’ we apologize nonetheless, hoping to imagine a new future.

“With the pain that will never leave us, we resist moving on,” he added, “but embrace moving forward…with hope.”

Sandra Green Thomas, president of GU272 Descendants Association, spoke during the liturgy.

“I have been away from Georgetown a long time. I have been away from the faith of my forefathers and my foremothers, the Catholic faith, for an even longer time,” she began, “but it’s funny how the things you were taught as a child, and then thought you had abandoned, all at once and without warning come back.

“These teachings from youth inform our decisions, color our perceptions, guide our steps and sometimes trip us up.” That persisting faith, she said, was a testament to the Catholic faith preserved by the 272 under circumstances few could imagine today.

Though discrimination and prejudice remain wound up in the American experience, “I know that the pain and suffering endured by African-Americans has been lessened by each generation,” Ms. Thomas said. The suffering still known today, she said, was “dwarfed by the experience of the stalwart people ripped from their homes and sent to Louisiana” in 1838.

Like other enslaved people of their time, “their pain was unparalleled; their pain is still here. It burns in the soul of every person of African descent in the United States,” she said. “It lives in people, some of whom have no knowledge of its origin but who cope with the ever present longing and lack it causes.”

African-Americans “have hungered and thirsted for the promise of America, the equality of man, the pursuit of happiness” but have only been offered “meager scraps.”

Through this historic ordeal, a faith that transcended their circumstances has been “a necessary tool in the survival kit” of African-Americans.

“What group in this country has demonstrated more faith, more belief in the American promise more belief in heaven in the final communion with God and the saints than African Americans,” Ms. Thomas asked.

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