By Laura Mogannam
Student at Schools of the Sacred Heart, San Francisco, California
Walking through a grove of Southern live oak trees to the beat of a drum in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, descendants of the men, women and children that the Society of the Sacred Heart enslaved more than 150 years ago remembered and honored their ancestors on a Sunday in late September.
As part of the reparation process for the Society’s history of slaveholding, the RSCJ sponsored an inaugural event, We Speak Your Names, planned by descendants of persons enslaved in Grand Coteau.
Beginning the healing
“I thank the sisters and the religious order for bringing this forward,” descendant Dorson Purdy said. “They didn’t have to say a word and most of us would have never known, but they stood up and apologized and honored them. That was a day of honor.”
Superior General Barbara Dawson and Provincial Sheila Hammond decided to form the United States – Canada Province Committee on Slavery, Accountability and Reconciliation in 2016 to address the Society’s participation in slavery in the United States.
From the founding of the schools until emancipation, the Society enslaved approximately 150 people in Louisiana and a few dozen more in Missouri, according to Maureen Chicoine, RSCJ, a member of the committee that works to find descendants of those the Society had enslaved.
“Finding out that the church enslaved people came as a big shock and took a while to process,” said Purdy, a sixth-generation descendant of Wilson Jacobs and Marie Louise Phillips.
Speaking their names
The gathering opened at St. Charles Borromeo Church near Schools of the Sacred Heart in Grand Coteau, during which Sister Hammond and Purdy spoke to the audience.
Those gathered then processed outside to the nearby cemetery where a newly erected monument now stands with the names of enslaved individuals, surnames of the largest enslaved families and the phrase, “and those only known to God,” for those whose names were not recorded.
Descendant Mary Rhodes performed the libation – a calling of the ancestors by pouring liquid on a grave – after which a deacon blessed the monument, and descendants gave speeches, sang and placed white roses on the granite stones engraved with the names.
“I felt that the celebration was a way for African Americans who grew up with Catholicism to somehow experience what their native culture would have looked like had their ancestors not been enslaved,” Rhodes said.
Enslaved Africans were often forced to abandon their native culture and religion and adopt those of their master, according to the National Humanities Center.
The gathering continued at the school with a meal, tours and a prayer service in the chapel where all of the enslaved persons were named.
“To sit in that chapel, to touch the beautiful hand-carved wood that my ancestors worked on and to feel such peace, I knew that they must have had a lot of love for what they were working on,” Purdy said.
Tours included the former slave quarters where many families lived before and after emancipation; it still stands today. “When we went to the slave quarters, I walked around the back and saw an open door,” Purdy said. “I went in and could only go about five feet. The weight was so heavy that I had to turn around and walk out.”
A plaque now hangs outside on a wall, listing the known names of the people who lived there, according to Irma Dillard, RSCJ, who is on the committee and one of the congregation’s few African American sisters.
“Although in part it was a memorial, they were really celebrating finding their great-great-grandparents, cousins and their history,” Sister Dillard said.
“When we were doing the speeches and speaking their names, I got so emotional halfway through,” Purdy said. “I realized in the middle of saying those names that this was the first times their names have been spoken in 170 years.”
Sister Chicoine said there are still many names of enslaved persons yet to be discovered.
“I’m very proud of our sisters,” Sister Dawson said during a video interview from Tokyo. “That’s one of the events I would loved to have attended because it is a big step forward. I hope it does not end there.”
The first enslaved person in Grand Coteau, Frank Hawkins, was purchased by the RSCJ for Grand Coteau in 1823. He was bought from a plantation in Maryland and separated from his family, who lived on a different plantation, according to Sister Chicoine.
Despite it being illegal, it was a common practice for slaveholders to separate children from their families and sell them to different plantations.
“Mother Xavier Murphy was an Irish nun who reunited many families at Grand Coteau,” Sister Dillard said. “She found out that Frank had been illegally split from his family so she purchased his wife and children and brought them to Grand Coteau.”
The family then lived together in servitude.
Sister Chicoine said many members of the Sacred Heart community believed in the past that the sisters taught the enslaved children to read and write, but there is no evidence that they did, as educating enslaved persons was illegal at the time. The sisters taught enslaved children only prayers and catechism.
The Society’s enslaved persons were freed with approximately 3 million others in the South after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
“A few of the enslaved persons continued to work for us,” Sister Chicoine said. “An agreement was made with eight of them to work at Grand Coteau. They made a sacrifice because the school had to delay payment until the nuns could get enough money from tuition to pay them.”
The Society of the Sacred Heart also purchased enslaved persons in Missouri for the first Sacred Heart school in America, which Saint Philippine Duchesne founded in 1818.
“We tend to hold people like Philippine as heroines,” Sister Dawson said. “She is a good example of the fact that we are all human. Perhaps Philippine wasn’t as brave as we would like her to have been, but it is important to know that people can be holy and not perfect.”
The congregation is becoming increasingly active in the current issues of racism, sexual trafficking and immigration, according to Sister Dawson.
“I’ve been thinking lately that 100 years from now, people may look back on us and see things that maybe we should be confronting, which we’re not,” Sister Dawson said.
Restoring lost lineage
Sister Chicoine said she seeks out descendants of the people the Society enslaved through searching the Society’s archives, church and community records, and online ancestry sites and through talking to the elders of the community.
“A lot of people of African descent can only find their ancestors who were freed after the Emancipation,” Purdy, who has been researching his lineage since 1997, said. “I didn’t even expect to get to that point, but not only to get to it, but two generations into slavery was a gift in a way.”
Sister Chicoine said through Ancestry.com, she contacted many of the first descendants she found who had already been researching their lineage through the site.
“The reparations will be ongoing,” Sister Chicoine said. “Some of it is education; a lot of people have been invited to present at different schools.”
Documents about the Society’s history with slavery will eventually be posted on the province’s website, rscj.org, so others searching for their ancestors can find them more easily.
Recently, the Society has created a scholarship, the Cor Unum Scholarship, to provide tuition assistance to African American students desiring a Sacred Heart education at the school in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, and for continuing education for faculty at the school on inclusion and diversity in the curriculum.
“They could have said nothing, but they didn’t,” Purdy said. “It is so wonderful to know where you came from. It healed me in a lot of ways.”
Editor’s note: Our dear friend Dorson William Purdy Jr. died on March 12, 2019. His sister, Mary Evelyn, was with him in the end. Our hearts and prayers go out to their entire family, and we take solace in knowing that Purdy went to God knowing his ancestors’ names!