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The Early American Church and Slavery

Last December I posted an entry that discussed what I termed the “Faithful Departed” 1 There were a number of priests who, for a number of reasons, left the Diocese of Vincennes and Indiana in the early days. Because so many of these departures came under the episcopate of Celestine de la Hailandiere, it is easy to blame him for these departures. Of course, many did leave because of Hailandiere, but many also left because they could not adapt to the harsh conditions of the Indiana missions. Others could not adapt to the backwoods culture.

It is all too easy to romanticize the era, especially when we have one saint, Mother Theodore Guérin and another saint, albeit unofficial, in Simon Brute. It is also easy to say that everyone got along just fine and that each person saw each and every other soul as being special. However, I ran across an article recently, written my Michael Pasquier in 2008, entitled “Though Their Skin Remains Brown, I Hope Their Souls Will Soon Be White “: Slavery, French Missionaries, and the Roman Catholic Priesthood in the American South, 1789-1865”. 2. Of course, Indiana isn’t part of the “south”, but the quote used in the title was from Bishop Auguste Martin the former Vicar General of the Diocese of Vincennes. So, this post deals, not so much with Indiana Catholic history, but more with “American” Catholic history and how, despite good intentions, there were (and I am sure there still are) prejudices and beliefs that would surprise us. Here is what the Pasquier article said:

“On August 21, 1861, Bishop Auguste Marie Martin of Natchitoches, Louisiana, issued a pastoral letter “on the occasion of the War of Southern Independence.” In it, Martin argued that slavery was “the manifest will of God.” It was the will of God for Catholics to continue “snatching from the barbarity of their ferocious customs thousands of children of the race of Canaan,” the cursed progeny of Noah. It was also the obligation of Catholics to repudiate abolitionists for “upset[ting] the will of Providence” and misusing “His merciful plans for unrighteous actions.”

Say what? Is this the same Auguste Martin, described by Robert Gorman in his history? Gorman wrote:

“Martin, without question, was the most distinguished cleric in the diocese. Born in 1803 in St. Malo, he had studied in the College of Rennes. As a seminarian he was a protegee of Jean Marie de la Mennais and was employed at the great Almonry in Paris under Cardinal Prince de Troy. In Paris he came in contact with some of the most outstanding Catholic leaders and scholars in France, particularly Felicite de La Manuais and the L’Avenir group, including Montalembert. Ordained in 1828, he had done pastoral work in the diocese of Rennes and had served on the faculty of the Royal Col1ege. 3

Just some background on Martin while he was in Indiana. After serving for some time in Vincennes, Martin was assigned to Logansport. Gorman says “he was attracted by the glamor of the Indian mission”. Martin was also a big supporter (as were many of the clergy) of Mother Theodore and the Sisters of Providence. Saint Mother Theodore and a number of priests approached Fr. Martin on how to grapple with the foibles of Bishop Hailandiere. Over time, Hailandiere, probably aware of Martin’s activities, lost trust in his Vicar General. According to Gorman:

“By this time the interest of everyone, the bishop included, was directed toward the forthcoming Provincial Council to be held in Baltimore during May 1846. Although it was only seven months after his return from Rome, Hailandiere seems to have fully determined to present his resignation to the gathering and there was apprehension among several groups in the diocese that their reputation would suffer because of the way in which it would be presented.” 4

In other words, Hailandiere, even though he planned to offer his resignation, would talk down his opposition before the bishops assembled in the Council and therefore deflect criticism of himself and, for all intents and purposes, blame his own failures on others. Fr. Martin, representing the dissident faction in the diocese apparently tried to head this off by going to New Orleans to speak with Archbishop Blanc (who, at one time, had served in Vincennes). He then went to Baltimore to speak with the Archbishop and then on to Rome. When he returned from Rome he had made up his mind to leave the diocese and never returned to Vincennes or Indiana. Instead he went to New Orleans, as some before him had done. Archbishop Blanc named him Vicar General and in 1853 he was named bishop of the newly created Diocese of Natchitoches.

So, how is it that such a good man like Martin, would be pro-slavery and see African Americans as inferior? This is a question that I cannot begin to answer. The same would hold true for someone like Father Benjamin Petit who referred to the Potawatomi that he served as “savages”. It does not mean that he cared any less for them nor does it mean that Bishop Martin cared any less for the blacks of his diocese. One could never read the minds of those who felt this way. It is true that the first bishop and archbishop, John Carroll, owned a slave. Slavery was “accepted” at the time. Does that make Bishop Martin’s view acceptable as well?

Some of our most venerable institutions took part in slavery. In April 2017 Georgetown University made a public apology for the fact that they once held slaves. Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg where Servant of God Simon Brute ministered, owned slaves. 5 and so, what are we to think. I don’t believe we can use the morality of the 21st century and apply it to the 19th century. That would be a mistake. I also believe that because slavery was part of the culture does not mean that the Church was somehow evil, nor was Auguste Martin, in my opinion, an evil person because he saw slavery as acceptable. Michael Pasquier, who wrote the journal article that began this post said this:

French missionary priests, who were immigrants for all intents and purposes, responded to the practice of enslavement as Catholics and ultimately justified the practice of enslavement as Catholics. They embraced the American institution of slavery by using non-American theological and philosophical arguments, ultimately finding commonalities in the conservative and authoritarian social orders of the American South and the Roman Catholic Church. But more important, they embraced the American institution of slavery because of their practical experiences as missionaries to enslaved persons and as owners of slaves. Put simply, the experience of evangelizing and owning slaves cannot be underestimated when explaining how “Catholics became American.”

Taking all this in is difficult because very talented and caring men, like Bishop Martin turned out to be pro-slavery. Saintly men, like our own Simon Brute lived among slaves while in Maryland, but he never condoned it, as Fr. Albert Ledoux writes:

Brute put himself on record twice in letters to his family as disfavoring the practice of slavery. Once in 1824, while standing on a crowded wharf at Le Havre awaiting the favorable winds that would carry his ship back to America, he mused at the various reasons that took sailors to sea: to trade in tea or sugar or coffee or “that horrible traffic in blacks. Eight years later, while making a comparison between France and the United States, he observed that the French, for all their shortcomings, were still all free before the law, while America harbored “2 million slaves to whom it is forbidden even to teach how to read, and to the ministers to approach them almost everywhere (in the slave states). While Brute might express himself thus to his family beyond the seas, there is no evidence that he tried to challenge the status-quo in his adopted country.
In Emmitsburg, communicants of African descent constituted about twelve percent of the overall Easter duty tally in 1823. Civil law was not so strict as to inhibit evangelization of slaves, as twenty-six of the forty-seven Easter communicants were held in bondage, while seventeen were free persons of color. Of the slaves, fifteen belonged to Catholic masters, while eleven were owned by Protestants. This last figure bears witness not only to the fact that slavery in the area had been practiced for several decades, but that Catholic owners who were probably instrumental in introducing their slaves to Catholicism, had subsequently sold them or their offspring to their Protestant neighbors. During the Brute period at the Emmitsburg parish, black parishioners accounted for no fewer than a quarter of the baptisms, marriages or burials, or sixty-eight out of two-hundred eighty. The fact that black adults and adolescents constituted only twelve percent of the Easter-duty roster is an indication either of less elevated levels of adult religious practice, or of aggressive baptizing of non-infant children by Brute. In fact the 1821 tally for African-American baptisms and burials reached a high of twenty three of the seventy-four performed by Brute in Emmitsburg. 6

Finally, here is the Catechism entry pertaining to slavery. Certainly it is now clear, but our catechism, in its present form, was not in use 150 years ago.

The Seventh Commandment forbids acts or enterprises that …. lead to the enslavement of human beings, to their being bought, sold and exchanged like merchandise, in disregard for their personal dignity. It is a sin against the dignity of persons and their fundamental rights to reduce them by violence to their productive value or to a source of profit. St. Paul directed a Christian master to treat his Christian slave “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother …. both in the flesh and in the Lord.” 7

So, can we judge the past with the present? I don’t think so. Slavery was and is an evil thing. Like so many things in the Church, both good and bad, we have learned through our ‘tradition’. Look at the stories of Archbishop Ritter and how just 75 years ago good Catholics were aghast that Catholic schools in Indianapolis were being integrated.

Our Indiana Catholic history is full of good and bad stories. We should always remember both.

  2. Church History 77:2 (June 2008), 337-370[]
  3. Gorman, Fr. Robert. History of the Catholic Church in Indiana., Archives, Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Indianapolis. p539[]
  4. Ibid. p.737[]
  6. Ledoux, Albert Henri. 2005. The life and thought of Simon Bruté, seminary professor and frontier bishop. pp. 216-17[]
  7. Catechism of the Catholic Church. #2414[]

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