Pilgrimage traces sisters’
route from slaveholding
to seeking racial justice

Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, foreground from left, Sister Amina Bejos, Sister Angela Hicks and Sister Sangeeta Ayithamattam, president of the congregation, crossed Breckinridge Street completing a pilgrimage from the Cathedral of the Assumption to Presentation Academy at Fourth and Breckinridge Streets Oct. 16. It was the last day of the “Walking Together: Pilgrimage for Racial Justice.” (Record Photo by Ruby Thomas)

The historic buildings on the motherhouse grounds of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth were “built by the hard labor of the enslaved men who made the bricks and laid them in place,” said Sister of Charity of Nazareth Theresa Knabel.

“That these buildings are still standing is a tribute to their labor,” she told participants in the “Walking Together: Pilgrimage for Racial Justice” Oct. 16.

The event included a pilgrimage from the Cathedral of the Assumption to Presentation Academy, where the 150 or so participants listened to a panel of SCNs discuss the congregation’s own pilgrimage — from its early years as slaveholders to its efforts today for racial justice.

Sister Knabel began by describing the congregation’s history, admitting aloud: “We were slave owners.”

It began with the founding of the order, she said.

In 1812, Bishop Benedict Joseph Flaget of the Diocese of Bardstown, Ky., called on young women to help teach the (white) children of Catholic families who’d migrated from Maryland. Some of the women who responded to that call brought enslaved individuals or families with them, she said.

The number of slaves owned by the sisters varied through the years; by 1865, when the state of Kentucky started emancipating slaves, there were about 30 people enslaved at Nazareth, she said.

The community bought and sold people, usually conducting the transactions with Catholic families, said Sister Knabel.

“It was the bishop or priest who made the purchase for us … because, since we were women, we weren’t allowed to own property.”

The church required that husbands and wives be bought or sold together. As a result, historical records show enslaved married couples living in Nazareth. Others married and lived out their lives in Nazareth, giving birth to children who were baptized there.

Though the state of Kentucky didn’t recognize the marriage of slaves at the time, Catholic priests would celebrate these weddings in the church on the motherhouse campus, said Sister Knabel.

Baptisms and weddings were considered “special occasions,” she said. The sisters also built a social hall to give the slaves a place to gather.

Despite the attention given to slaves by the sisters, Sister Knabel noted that slavery is “an institution of cruelty and some of that cruelty may have seeped into Nazareth.”

Sister of Charity of Nazareth Theresa Knabel gave a presentation on the sisters’ history of slave ownership during a program on racial justice Oct. 16. (Record Photo by Ruby Thomas)

She shared that 11 men worked the large farm under the watchful eyes of an overseer. Historical records show that in 1862 Nazareth needed a new overseer. The documents related to that hire stated they needed someone to “control Blacks.”

This caused her to wonder, she said, “how did one man force 11 strong men to work in the hot sun without pay unless there was at least the threat of violence. I don’t know if he had a whip, I don’t know if he had a gun, but he had to have something. I’ll leave that to your imagination,” said Sister Knabel to her listeners, which included students, parishioners and Catholic school educators.

Sister Adeline Fehribach, one of the vice presidents of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, also addressed the pilgrims during the event.

“We lament our participation in slavery and nothing can truly undo the harm that was done by it,” she said.

Sister Fehribach went on to share a history of the sisters’ outreach to African Americans starting in 1871, when members of the congregation became teachers at St. Monica School in Bardstown, Ky., and St. Augustine School in Louisville. Both parishes are traditionally African American.

The sisters also have served in pastoral ministry in African American churches and provided social outreach through agencies such as Catholic Charities of Louisville’s Sister Visitor Center in the West End. Currently, Sister of Charity of Nazareth Paris Slapikas is the director of Sister Visitor, which provides emergency assistance to those in need.

In 1971, the congregation adopted the “elimination of racism” as one of its four priorities, said Sister Fehribach. In the year 2000, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth along with the Sisters of Loretto and the Dominican Sisters of St. Catharine, Ky., (now the Dominican Sisters of Peace) held a prayer service where they asked the African American community for forgiveness for their participation in slavery.

The sisters have also made monetary contributions to the community in the form of scholarship funds and grants.

In June the sisters announced a $2.5 million gift to the Louisville Urban League designated for the renovation of vacant and abandoned properties into affordable housing in West Louisville. A year earlier, the sisters made a $1 million community economic development investment loan to Louisville Housing and Opportunities Micro-Enterprise Community Development Loan Fund, Inc., (LHOME) for small loans and to help curb evictions in the West End, said Sister Fehribach.

Sister of Charity of Nazareth Julie Driscoll also shared with the gathering the ways the congregation has used its voice to advocate for change on issues affecting the African American community, including voting rights, gun violence, the death penalty and reparations.

Pilgrims, who’d gathered at the Cathedral of the Assumption, walked down Fourth street on their way to Presentation Academy’s Arts and Athletic Center on the corner of Fourth and Breckinridge Streets Oct. 16, the last day of the “Walking Together: Pilgrimage for Racial Justice.” (Record Photo by Ruby Thomas)

During a question and answer session following the sisters’ presentation, Kim Telesford-Mapp, a member of St. Martin de Porres Church, questioned the congregation’s decision to make a $2.5 million gift to the Louisville Urban League instead of to an agency such as the Catholic Enrichment Center (CEC).

The CEC, located on West Broadway, is part of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Multicultural Ministry and provides enrichment and outreach programs to the West Louisville community. The center also provides after-school tutoring and access to a computer lab, which Telesford-Mapp described as “woefully underfunded.”

She said the center — where she volunteers and once served as director — is a “jewel in the West End.”

She went on to say that among the West End’s many needs is the need for children to get a good Catholic education, something most families cannot afford. She asked the sisters if it was possible to provide “opportunities for the descendants of slaves to get a good Catholic education?”

“Reparations don’t mean you have to come out of your pocket and put money on the table. … Education is the key, the key to economic success. That’s a great place to start. One thing we’re looking at, is trying to get a Catholic school back into the West End,” said Telesford-Mapp, drawing hearty applause from the gathering.

Sister Knabel thanked Telesford-Mapp for voicing her concerns, telling her “everything you said is true.”

Sister Knabel invited the community to keep reaching out, saying, “We need to work with you more closely to know how best to work with the African American community. … We need to learn.”

“Walking Together: Pilgrimage for Racial Justice” was a two-day event that brought Catholics together to reflect on issues of racial justice. The event was sponsored by the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Multicultural Ministry and organized by Modern Catholic Pilgrim.

It included a pilgrims’ blessing prayer service at St. Augustine Church and a keynote presentation by Dr. Kathleen Dorsey Bellow, who serves as the director of the Institute for Black Catholic students at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans.

Ruby Thomas
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Ruby Thomas
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