Research of Jesuit slaveholding may provide links to modern-day descendants in Illinois

Contributing writer

The early history of the Jesuits in the United States is entwined with the institution of slavery.

Records show that in about 1670, French Jesuit missionary Father Jacques Marquette received the gift of an American Indian slave from the Illinois tribe he ministered to. Years later, at the Kaskaskia settlement Father Marquette helped found on the Mississippi River in southern Illinois, both Indian and African people were held in bondage.

During the 1700s, the order used enslaved African people as laborers on their plantations in Maryland. And a contingent of priests from Maryland brought enslaved people with them in 1823 to work at a settlement and school that would one day become St. Louis University.

Today, the Jesuit order is exploring its history of slaveholding and has committed to a “transformative process of truth-telling, reconciliation and healing.” Researchers are searching for the descendants of enslaved people held by the Jesuits in hopes of including them in the conversation about how the order should respond to this history.

They say examining the history is important, not just to atone for past sins, but to help address slavery’s remnants – the inequalities that persist today.

“It struck me in this research, how pervasive the history of slaveholding is,” says Kelly Schmidt, research coordinator for the Slavery, History, Memory and Reconciliation Project, a joint project between Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province and St. Louis University. “The total institution is affected.”

Many institutions are having this conversation, as they examine the role that slavery played in their growth and prosperity. Some of the most prominent universities in the United States had financial ties to slavery, or were built by enslaved people.

Leaders of Georgetown University, the oldest U.S. Jesuit university, arranged for the sale of 272 Jesuit-owned enslaved people in Maryland, in part to pay down the university’s debts. In 2015, Georgetown launched an effort to investigate its ties to slavery and released a report in 2016 with recommendations that included apologizing for its past, changing the names of buildings and engaging with the descendants of enslaved people owned by the Jesuits.

Schmidt says that the Central and Southern Province of the Jesuits was engaged in the same type of self-reflection when they learned that St. Louis University was interested in a similar project. “It was the right moment in time for them to work together,” she says.

Laura Weis, coordinator for the slavery project, says it has since gained the support of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, which has expanded the scope of the project.

Schmidt says that Jesuits living in the United States generally tolerated slaveholding as part of the culture in which they were living, in part to avoid stirring up resentment among non-Catholics who were suspicious of their activities.

Records kept by Jesuit slave owners show a wide variety of attitudes to it – some were seen as vicious and cruel, while others were troubled by such behavior and even reported it to superiors. In that respect, they weren’t unique, Schmidt says.

“Even though they tried to justify their slaveholding (because they brought religion to enslaved people), they often acted just like any other master,” she says.

The group in Kaskaskia used first indigenous people as slaves, then converted more to African slaves as they became available, brought by traders up the Mississippi River from New Orleans, Schmidt says. Records show they worked as farm hands on the Kaskaskia plantation, as well as millers, brewers, blacksmiths, masons and other artisans. Records from the Immaculate Conception Parish in Kaskaskia show baptisms of enslaved people, she says.

As a result of the French suppression of the Jesuit order during the 1760s, the priests at Kaskaskia were ordered to sell all of their property – including the 68 enslaved persons they then held. Schmidt says a large number of them were placed on flatboats for a perilous journey to New Orleans to be sold. Little is known about what happened to them after that.

However there is a substantial amount of information about the six slaves brought to St. Louis from Maryland in 1823 – Thomas and Mary (or Polly) Brown, Moses and Nancy Queen, and Isaac and Susan Queen-Hawkins. Two more families, totaling about 16 people, were forced to join them in 1829.

All of these people left behind families in Maryland.

“I was surprised most by how much material there was about them,” Schmidt says. She cites letters that the priests wrote and sacramental records of baptisms and marriages. At first, she says, the enslaved people attended Mass in the same buildings as white worshippers, in separate sections. Eventually, separate chapels were established, which eventually evolved into black Catholic parishes.

She says enslaved people relied upon their faithful practice of Catholicism to help keep their families together and resisted their enslavement by negotiating with the priests to purchase their freedom and in some cases, by running away.

Seeking descendants
There is reason to believe that the descendants of these freed slaves may live in Illinois, since it was a nearby free state. Schmidt cites the case of a man named Charles, who was owned by the bishop of St. Louis and sent to do work on a convent in Cahokia, Ill. In 1840, he used his history of work in Illinois to sue for his freedom and was eventually declared free.

Now, the project is seeking people who m-78-ay be descended from enslaved people held by the Jesuits in Missouri. Jonathan Smith, vice president for diversity and community engagement at St. Louis University, says he initially was skeptical they’d be able to find descendants, but several people have contacted the project already from Missouri and other states.

He says a working group at SLU will spend this year figuring out an appropriate response to all of the information that the project is bringing to light.

One of the measures announced at Georgetown as a result of its own research was a change to admissions policies to give preferential treatment to the descendants of the Jesuit slaves whose value benefited the university.

“We haven’t predetermined anything,” Smith says of SLU’s process. “We want to have a conversation that includes faculty, staff, students, the community and descendants.”

He says one important outcome of this process is to give black families a fuller picture of their own history.

“Those of us who are descended from slaves find the simple work of finding family history much more difficult than white Americans do,” Smith says. “When I do my family genealogy, I run into an 1870 wall – because 1870 is the first time the census enumerates and acknowledges my ancestors as full people, with first names and surnames.”

Smith says he hopes that Catholics grappling with the church’s participation in slavery can start to look at the legacy of that, and how it affects everything from family genealogy to how the churches of this region developed. Maybe local and national archives, most of which can be found on sites like Genealogy Bank, could be a good place to start their research on this subject.

“Some of those structures continue to persist today,” Smith continues. “If we better understand that history, we can better understand the present as well.”

For more information about the Slavery, History, Memory and Reconciliation Project based at St. Louis University, visit the project website at

If you believe you may be a descendant of the enslaved people held by the Jesuits or SLU, or have other information to contribute to the project, contact researchers at [email protected] or 314-758-7159.