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Jesuits, Georgetown Add $27 Million to Fund for Slaves’ Descendants

Jesuit Father Timothy Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, delivers the homily at an April 18 “Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition and Hope” in Gaston Hall on the campus of Georgetown University in Washington. (Photo: CNS/Jaclyn Lippelmann, Catholic Standard)

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — Georgetown University and the Jesuits recently made contributions worth $27 million to help achieve racial healing while providing educational opportunities for the descendants of slaves once owned by the order, according to announcements.

The Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation on Sept. 13 praised the contributions. The money includes $10 million from the university and $17 million from the USA East Province of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits).

To date, $42 million has been raised for the trust that funds the foundation’s objectives, like educational scholarships and grants. It will also help cover emergency needs of elderly descendants.

The latest contributions are welcome news for the foundation’s leaders. A year ago, they complained the Jesuits were taking too long to make good on their promises to fund the trust. 

Its ultimate goal is $1 billion.

“These contributions from Georgetown University and the Jesuits are a clear indication of the role (they) can play in supporting our mission to heal the wounds of racism in the United States,” said Monique Maddox, the foundation’s CEO and chair of its board of directors.

Maddox, a tech entrepreneur in Edina, Minnesota, is a descendant of Isaac Hawkins, one of the 272 enslaved people sold by Jesuits to plantations in Louisiana.

She added that the contributions are “a call to action for all of the Catholic Church to take meaningful steps to address the harm done through centuries of slaveholding.”

During colonialism, the British monarchy fueled long-standing animosity of the papacy in Rome by tightly controlling the activities of the Catholic Church throughout its empire. 

The British, however, did let Jesuits plant churches in one of its North American colonies — Maryland.

There, the priests bought plantations — and slaves to work them — to generate revenue for their causes. Among them: their struggling new university, Georgetown. 

So in 1838, the Jesuits sold 272 enslaved people to bolster Georgetown’s financial future. Today they are called the “GU272.”

Nearly 180 years later, researchers and Georgetown students found sales receipts for the slaves in Jesuit archives at the university. News organizations first reported this story in 2016.

At that time, most Jesuits agreed with Georgetown officials that they should take responsibility for their predecessors’ role in slavery — also known as America’s “original sin.”

Next, the newly formed GU272 Descendants Association and the Jesuits signed a joint memorandum of understanding in 2019 to create the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation.

Among the signers was Father Tim Kesicki who, at that time, was president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. Now he is chairman of the foundation’s trust. 

“As a Catholic community, it is imperative that we don’t turn away from our sinful history of slaveholding and instead look inward at how we can right past wrongs with justice, healing, and compassion,” Father Kesicki said on Sept. 13.

The trust does not provide cash “reparations” to descendants, nor do they actually handle the money.

For example, its education program directly pays colleges or universities to cover education costs for qualifying descendants. This activity is managed through a partnership with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.

In July, Maddox’s predecessor, Joe Stewart of Battle Creek, Michigan, told The Tablet he was optimistic that contributions would resume flowing. He, too, is a descendant of Isaac Hawkins.

But in 2022, Stewart assailed “hardliners” in the Jesuit leadership who believed the present-day priests had no hand in slavery, and ought not be blamed for it.

Stewart said in July that “those dynamics still exist,” but added, “we do have positive things taking place.” He declined to say more, explaining some specifics had yet to be determined.

The Jesuits on Sept. 13 outlined those details in a news release. They pledged to give $2 million each year for the next five years. The resulting $10 million will be matched by Georgetown, according to the news release.

These contributions join $7 million that the Jesuits pledged earlier this year, based on the value of parcels, formerly plantations, owned by the order. The Jesuits started the fund with $15 million in seed money; the latest contributions bring the fund’s current total to $42 million. 

On Sept. 13, Stewart commented on the new contributions.

“Continuing commitments,” he said, “gets us closer to reconciling this nation’s original sin and to healing the disease of racism in our nation.”