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Forgive Us Our Trespasses

Updated: Oct 18, 2022

June 18, 2022

Maafa: Kiswahili for “Great Disaster” is a traditional procession memorializing lives lost during the Middle Passage of the Atlantic slave trade. This event was a testament to our broken past that has, through prayer and the help of God, led us on a path of acknowledgment, penance, forgiveness, and healing. The event can be seen here.

In the Fall of 2018 the Office of Archives and Records approached then Archbishop Robert Carlson. The archives was working with congregations who were researching their past history with enslavement.

Previously, there was some understanding that there were enslaved persons within the boundaries of the Diocese of St. Louis, and some of those enslaved persons worked on diocesan properties. But our research showed that the diocesan involvement in the slave trade was much more extensive than previously known.

Archbishop Carlson understood that these were important findings, and asked us to continue our research and provide him with updates.

Upon Archbishop Rozanski’s installation in 2020, we presented our previous research to him along with our latest findings. He also agreed that this was important, and asked that we

1. Continue to develop and expand the research where possible.

2. Continue to assist other religious communities with their research efforts.

3. Consider ways to communicate our findings with the faithful.

Archbishop Rozanski also gave our project its name: Forgive Us Our Trespasses.

What is it we do?

Very simply Forgive Us Our Trespasses seeks to promote open and honest access to the historic record in order to achieve a more comprehensive and truthful telling of enslavement within the local Church. Additionally, we will promote active community engagement, and encourage dialog on the many legacies of slavery in the local community.

What are our findings?

All three of the first ordinaries of the Diocese of Louisiana and the Floridas and the Archdiocese of St. Louis: Bishop DuBourg, Bishop Rosati, and Archbishop Kenrick all owned enslaved persons and used enslaved persons for labor. Additionally, several priests within the diocese/archdiocese and the territories administered by the Bishops of St. Louis also owned enslaved persons and used enslaved persons for labor.

To date we have uncovered the names of approximately 85 persons enslaved by the bishops and clergy of the archdiocese

Our Research Team

This research is difficult and emotional work. Many times, it requires long hours of reading through pages of letters, financial ledgers, court cases, and property records, often in French, to find one key citation. The dogged efforts of our research team to leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of the truth is the reason we know what we know today.

Our team:

Emory Webre – who volunteers his time and talents specifically for this project and has been simply invaluable.

Rena Schergen, Archivist, Archdiocese of Saint Louis, whose research and writing skills are second to none.

Catholic Religious Organizations Studying Slavery (CROSS)

Within the past decade, several Catholic dioceses and religious communities have begun examining their history of slaveholding to acknowledge more fully their participation in the evil of slavery. In our own research for Forgive Us Our Trespasses and in assisting many of these communities, we found that many persons were enslaved to more than one religious community or individual.

We therefore reached out to other religious communities grappling with their own legacy of enslavement. Catholic Religious Organizations Studying Slavery (CROSS) is the result of these efforts. We are currently 10 dioceses and religious communities across the United States, spiritually advised by Archbishop Shelton Fabre, Archbishop of Louisville and Chair of the USCCB Ad-hoc Committee Against Racism. Our goal is to learn from one another, share resources, and suggest best practices to provide a more comprehensive and accurate account of slavery within the Catholic Church in the United States.

Why are we doing this?

The USCCB Pastoral Letter Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love teaches that racism, in all its forms, is an evil in society. Furthermore, an act based in the evil of racism is a sinful act.

Of the Church, St. John Paul II noted that “Although she is holy because of her incorporation into Christ, the Church does not tire of doing penance: before God and man, she always acknowledges as her own her sinful sons and daughters.”

In order to be fully penitent and reconcile ourselves before God, we must be open and honest about our sins, now and in the past. Only then can we truly seek forgiveness.

From Open Wide Our Hearts:

… we, the Catholic bishops in the United States, acknowledge the many times when the Church has failed to live as Christ taught—to love our brothers and sisters. Acts of racism have been committed by leaders and members of the Catholic Church—by bishops, clergy, religious, and laity—and her institutions. We express deep sorrow and regret for them. We also acknowledge those instances when we have not done enough or stood by silently when grave acts of injustice were committed. We ask for forgiveness from all who have been harmed by these sins committed in the past or in the present.

And so, we move forward, with the Lord’s words on our lips and in our hearts: Forgive Us Our Trespasses.

Here in St. Louis, we celebrate the names and stories of the Catholic faithful. DuBourg, Rosati, Duchesne, Choteau – these are all names familiar to us. And now, it is time to add new names to this list: Harry, Aspasia, Charles, and that young man named Peter.

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