© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

St. Louis Archdiocese Uncovers Its Own History With Slavery In Midst Of National Reckoning

062321_Provided_Archdiocese Archives_01.jpg
Archdiocese of St. Louis Archives
A letter dated March 2, 1819, from Bishop Louis William Valentine DuBourg to the Rev. Joseph Rosati detailing a transaction for Old James from the Rev. Henry Pratte in Ste. Genevieve. Rosati would later become the first bishop of the Diocese of St. Louis. The research team is working to identify who Old James was.

The Archdiocese of St. Louis is coming clean about its history with slavery, admitting that some of its early bishops and other clergy owned enslaved people.

The effort to uncover that history is called Forgive Us Our Trespasses. So far the project has a working list of 85 people who were enslaved and is working to name church officials and clergy who owned people during the 1800s.

The director of archives and records for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Eric Fair, said he and his team have combed through hundreds, and maybe thousands, of handwritten manuscripts, most of them in French.

Fair said that even though it's been like trying to find a needle in a haystack, naming those who were enslaved is important.

“These documents have been here 200 years, but the stories within those documents have never been told,” he said. “And those stories are just as important as any other piece of Catholic history here in the Diocese and Archdiocese of St. Louis.”

Researchers have learned two bishops and one archbishop in St. Louis purchased and owned Black people, including the first bishop, Joseph Rosati, and first archbishop, Peter Kenrick.

062321_Provided_Archdiocese Archives_02.jpg
Archdiocese of St. Louis Archives
A letter dated Sept. 11, 1822, from Bishop Louis William Valentine DuBourg to the Rev. Joseph Rosati regarding an enslaved person named Rachel who would be sent to the Rev. Pratte in Ste. Genevieve. Rosati would later become the first bishop of the Diocese of St. Louis. The research team is working to identify who Rachel was. Challenges researchers face in identifying people include poor penmanship, the condition of the documents and the fact that most of the manuscripts are in French.

While the Diocese of St. Louis was created in 1826, there were connections to slavery even before then. The episcopal seat of the Bishop of Louisiana and the Two Floridas, Louis William Valentine DuBourg, was in St. Louis. Researchers have found DuBourg bought Harry and Jenny Nebbit and their nine children in 1822, and would eventually own two more of their children.

The archdiocese officially launched the project in February 2021. It stems from researchers at the Archdiocese’s Office of Archives and Records working with the Jesuits and St. Louis University on their Slavery, History, Memory and Reconciliation Project. (In 1823, DuBourg requested that Jesuits in Maryland begin a mission in Missouri, and the order of priests would bring three enslaved couples to Florissant that year.)

Researchers noticed an overlap of information, and in 2018, under the guidance of then-Archbishop Robert Carlson, researchers began to dig deeper into the archdiocese's archives to learn more about its involvement in slavery.

Joyce Jones is the program director of racial harmony at the Archdiocese of St. Louis. She’s also serving on the executive committee overseeing the project. She said the ultimate goal is to find living descendants and connect them to their ancestors.

“Until we can find those living descendants, as we find stories of the enslaved people we want to bring those stories to light,” Jones said. “We want to tell those stories. We want to make those people come alive and let others know that they were not property. These were people made in the image of God that should have been treated with the human dignity that was their God-given gift at birth.”

Although the research has been emotionally taxing, Fair said his team has been able to uncover the resilience of some. An enslaved woman known as Aspasia was owned by Bishop Rosati. She sued multiple times for her freedom and eventually won it.

“It’s just amazing to me, because in St. Louis — and St. Louis was definitely a slave city and a slave territory and in a slave state — so everyone in society would have been against her,” Fair said. “The court system would not have been favorable. But she kept it up. She kept working. She was resilient and courageous in her efforts, and they finally paid off for her.”

The Archdiocese of St. Louis is the latest in a growing number of religious institutions acknowledging and atoning for their role in slavery, including the Jesuits. Jones said acknowledgement is a key part of atonement.

“You cannot move forward until you acknowledge that a wrong has been committed,” Jones said. “And we are acknowledging that a wrong was committed, and we’re asking for forgiveness at the same time.”

The team is collaborating with other parishes, researchers and libraries to learn more. The project is expected to continue at least through 2026.

Follow Marissanne on Twitter: @Marissanne2011

Marissanne is the afternoon newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.