With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Rachel Swarns Traces the Ties of Slavery and the American Catholic Church

For more than a century, the Catholic Church financed its expansion and its institutions with profits made from the purchase and sale of people they enslaved. This chapter of Church history has only recently come to the attention of the public.

"Without the enslaved, the Catholic Church in the United States as we know it today would not exist," writes author Rachel Swarns. She says the priests prayed for the salvation of the souls of the people they owned, even as they bought and sold their bodies.

In 1838, the Jesuits sold 272 enslaved people, which helped save what is now Georgetown University from bankruptcy and helped stabilize the Jesuits in Maryland. Swarns wrote about this sale in 2016 in the New York Times article "272 Slaves Were Sold to Save Georgetown. What does It owe Their Descendants?"

Swarns' new book — The 272: The Families Who Were Enslaved and Sold to Build the American Catholic Church — expands on that article. It tells the story of the Church's history of enslavement in America, while illustrating the consequences by focusing on generations of one family that had several members among those 272 people sold by the Church in 1838. Two descendants of the family she writes about in the book found each other as a result of her New York Times article.

To this day, our contemporary institutions are "deeply connected" to slavery, Swarns says. She hopes that telling multi-generational stories of families associated with these institutions will help make this history more present and more personal. "This isn't this faceless, amorphous thing," Swarns says. "These are people. They have names. And we are connected to that. We are connected to that history today."

Read entire article at NPR