By Ruby Thomas
RHODELIA, Ky. (CNS) — On a wintry January day at the old St. Theresa Cemetery in rural Meade County in Kentucky, Janice Mulligan laid a simple wreath of magnolia leaves on the grave of Matilda Hurd, a woman who died a slave and whose grandson is now a saint in the making.
Hurd, who died in 1836 at age 30, was enslaved on a farm belonging to John Henry Manning. She also was the maternal grandmother of Father Augustus Tolton — who was born into slavery and is the first recognized African American priest ordained for the U.S. Catholic Church.
Father Tolton was ordained April 24, 1886, in Rome, died in 1897 in Chicago and is on the path toward sainthood. Pope Francis declared in June 2019 that Father Tolton lived a life of heroic virtue, giving him the title of “Venerable.”
The next step is beatification, which requires verification of a miracle attributed to the sainthood candidate’s intercession. In general, a second such miracle is needed for canonization.
As she stood over Hurd’s grave, “her story felt like a part of my family’s story,” said Mulligan, associate director of the Office of Multicultural Ministry of the Archdiocese of Louisville, Kentucky.
On that January day, Father J. Ronald Knott, a retired Louisville archdiocesan, led a small group, including Mulligan, in reciting the Confiteor before the wreath laying.
The penitential prayer seemed fitting for the moment, especially the words “in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,” said Father Knott, who grew up in Rhodelia and attended St. Theresa Church as a child.
Father Knott recently became aware that Hurd was buried in the old St. Theresa Cemetery, he said. He is leading a project to convert the old St. Theresa School building into a community center.
He said he plans to use one of the center’s hallways as a museum where historic photographs and documents from the parish community will be displayed.
In searching for old photos and researching the history of the more than 200-year-old parish, Father Knott said, “all of a sudden it became clear to me that part of our history” is rooted in slavery. “I was shocked by it. I didn’t know there were slaves in the parish.”
His research shows there were about 50 families at St. Theresa who collectively enslaved about 200 people.
Father Knott is studying St. Theresa’s baptismal records to find the names of enslaved people baptized at the parish, he said. “We need to say their names — Matilda, Maria, Augustus, Sicilia. We didn’t even know their names and it’s right there in the baptismal records and in the cemetery.”
His research eventually turned up the baptismal records of Hurd’s children — Charles, Anne, Sicilia, Sicilia Ellen and Martha Jane.
Martha Jane is the mother of Father Tolton, he told The Record, Louisville’s archdiocesan newspaper.
“The more I studied, I realized this family was related to Father Tolton,” said Father Knott.
Their names and the names of the other enslaved people will be displayed on the history wall in the Family Life Center because they were parishioners at St. Theresa, too, he said.
“As people walk down the hall seeing the names of the priests and the (religious) sisters, they’ll see the names of the slaves who made some families here successful,” he said. “As far as little parishes in the country, St. Theresa was more advanced and well to do,” and it was because of slave labor.
Father Knott said the parish is still benefiting from the labor of enslaved people who, he believes, quarried the rocks used for the foundation and made the bricks from which St. Theresa’s current church was built. The church was dedicated in 1861 by Louisville’s Bishop Martin John Spalding.
Father Knott noted he’s not interested in “shaming” anyone. Instead, he wants to celebrate the contribution of enslaved people to his boyhood parish, learn and pass on the parish’s whole history — “not only white history” or a “sanitized version” of that history — to the younger generation.
If they will stand against “prejudice and bigotry,” they need to be aware of the parish’s history with slavery, said Father Knott.
Mulligan agrees that the contributions of enslaved people to the parishes in the Archdiocese of Louisville should be recognized.
“Having her (Matilda’s) name recognized, especially in the context of her grandson becoming one of the first African American saints in the U.S. … there’s a legacy and story there, rich and worth telling,” she said. “The work of this office is to promote and spread that African American legacy, whether in the 1800s or now.”
“Her story and others like it adds a fuller thread and a fuller context to the presence and contributions of African Americans to this American church,” she said. “It certainly can be better promoted and appreciated.”
Part of Hurd’s story takes place on the farm in Rhodelia owned by Manning and his wife, Ann Gough, who were members of St. Theresa Church.
Hurd was married to Augustus Chisley, another slave on the Manning farm, said Emilie Leumas, an archivist who serves on the historical commission for Father Tolton’s sainthood cause. Hurd and Chisley had six children.
In 1835, when Manning died, he bequeathed all his belongings — about 1,200 acres of land, personal items such as silver, his watch, his Bible and his 17 slaves to his children and grandchildren whose parents had died, said Leumas.
Details from Manning’s will show that Hurd and Chisley and their children were separated. Their oldest children, Martha Jane, 11, and Charles, 6, were left to Manning’s granddaughter Anne Sevilla Manning.
Leumas noted that by the time the will was read, Anne Sevilla Manning and her family had moved to Ralls County, Missouri. At some point following the reading of the will, Charles and Martha Jane — the mother of Father Tolton — were moved to Missouri to live with their new owner.
“How gut-wrenching that your two oldest children are being hauled away to Missouri,” said Leumas during a recent interview.
When Anne Sevilla Manning married Stephen Elliott in 1839, she would have brought Charles and Martha Jane into her marriage as part of her dowry, Leumas said.
More than a decade later, Martha Jane, now the mother of three young children, including Father Tolton, age 7 at the time, escaped slavery and fled to Quincy, Illinois, where Father Tolton grew up and was formed in the Catholic faith.
Hurd’s death in 1836 came a year after Manning’s will was read. She is buried a few feet away from a large wooden cross that marks where the old church, a log cabin structure, once stood.
The parish started out as a log cabin on the banks of the Ohio River, an area that was known as Flint Island in 1818. In 1826, a second log cabin was built on what is now the old cemetery grounds.
Father Knott noted Hurd is buried among St. Theresa’s white parishioners, perhaps because she was baptized. A cemetery located in a wooded area off a highway about two miles from the parish was used to bury enslaved people owned by St. Theresa parishioners, as well.
Those slaves, he said, may not have been baptized. He is leading a project to find all the headstones in that cemetery.
Thomas is a staff writer at The Record, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Louisville.