By Carol Zimmermann
WASHINGTON — The Jesuit order is pledging to raise $100 million for descendants of enslaved people once owned and sold by their order as a way to make reparations and also help the nation move toward racial healing.
Church officials and historians told The New York Times, which broke the story on March 15, that the funds represented one of the most significant moves by an institution to atone for slavery, and “the largest effort by the Roman Catholic Church to make amends for the buying, selling and enslavement of Black people.”
The funds will be placed in a new partnership called Descendants Truth and Reconciliation Foundation formed by the Jesuit order and the GU272 Descendants Association — named after the 272 enslaved men, women and children who were sold by the Jesuit owners of Georgetown University to plantation owners in Louisiana in 1838.
A news release about the partnership said it was the first of its kind between the descendants of enslaved persons and the descendants of their enslavers.
“Our shameful history of Jesuit slaveholding in the United States has been taken off the dusty shelf, and it can never be put back,” said Jesuit Father Tim Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States.
“Racism will endure in America if we continue to turn our heads away from the truth of the past and how it affects us all today. The lasting effects of slavery call each of us to do the work of truth and reconciliation,” he added.
The priest told The New York Times the Jesuits have already put $15 million into a trust established to support the foundation, whose governing board will include representatives from other institutions with roots in slavery. He also said the order has hired a national fundraising firm to help raise the rest of the funds within the next three to five years.
Joe Stewart, acting president of the new foundation, is a retired corporate executive and one of more than 1,000 descendants of Isaac Hawkins, an enslaved man sold by Georgetown University.
In the announcement of the new partnership, he said the group would “set an example and lead America through dismantling the remnants of slavery and mitigating the presence of racism.”
He also said it would “support the educational aspirations of descendants for future generations and play a prominent role in engaging, promoting and supporting programs and activities that highlight truth, accelerate racial healing and reconciliation, and advance racial justice and equality in America.”
Cheryllyn Branche, president of the GU272 Descendants Association, said that from its start this group has worked to identify and rebuild ancestors’ families affected by slavery.
In San Diego, Father Eduardo Samaniego, SJ, said he was proud that his order was taking a leadership role in telling the truth about its history and pledging to make reparations. He reflected on that history, and what lessons could be drawn today.
“When you participate in an institutional sin, either as an individual or as a community, it’s not going away,” said Father Samaniego, who directs the diocese’s Office for Permanent Diaconate.
He said the Jesuits’ action should prompt people of faith to reflect on “whether they have been guilty of institutional sin, whether it’s racism, sexism, ageism, or other ‘isms.’ That’s God asking you: What are you going to do about it?”
The San Diego diocese is working to root out racism in the Church. For more information, visit sdcatholic.org/racism.