Despite all the abuses in the Catholic Church, nuns have usually remained above the fray. Whatever you think about priests, people still have a soft spot for nuns (except, perhaps, the more nasty ones they encountered while in Catholic school). If anything, nuns have been victims of abuse themselves.
At the same time, they’re not blameless. In some cases they are the perpetrators of sexual violence. And now the New York Times‘ Rachel L. Swarns finds that one of the more prestigious Catholic girls’ schools in the country was built on the institution of slavery.
Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School proudly stated in its official history that it was started by nuns in the early 1800s as a place where any girl could get an education — including the children of slaves, which was virtually unheard of (and illegal) at the time.
The problem with that explanation, says Swarns, is that it’s not true. There’s no record of young slaves being taught anything. In fact, the intersection of the school’s history with slavery is that the sisters who founded the school owned more than 100 of them, selling “dozens” of them to pay off debts.
(Swarns also broke the story about how Georgetown University owes its existence to enslaved people.)
So what did these nuns do?
As for the Georgetown Visitation nuns, the profits from slave sales would become a vital lifeline during a period of expansion. In the 1820s, the sisters embarked on a building campaign, which left them saddled with debt. To ease the financial strain, they sold at least 21 people between 1819 and 1822, the records show.
Wealthy supporters and relatives of the nuns also donated enslaved people to the convents. Meanwhile, Catholic sisters bought, sold and bartered enslaved people. Some nuns accepted slaves as payment for tuition to their schools or handed over their human property as payment for debts, records show.
That school is now working to acknowledge its sordid history and educate their students on it. Other schools in similar positions have at least reached out to descendents of the slaves in question and issued formal apologies. They can’t make up for what the nuns did 200 years ago, but they can do everything in their power to make sure that history isn’t forgotten.
Be sure to read the full story.
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