Creating Inclusive Community: Slavery and the American Catholic Church Part 1

By Kristin Anderson-Bricker (TheLorian)

Article one in this series explored the story of Marie Louise and why we need to recognize her personhood as we confront the legacy of slavery at Loras College. The knowledge that Bishop Loras used money earned by Marie Louise to build the Diocese of Dubuque matters because the systematic racism that evolved out of slavery still oppresses members of American society today. The evidence establishes that, like his fellow Catholics, Bishop Loras was a willing participant in the institution of slavery. This reality conflicts with our Catholic identity today. Historical context will help our Loras community act positively and aggressively against inequality, white supremacy and injustice today.

  • Catholics benefitted from owning slaves, and the Catholic Church in America did not critique slavery before or during the Civil War. 
  • Traditionally, the Catholic Church allowed slave-owning. Prior to the nineteenth century, popes owned slaves. While they believed that the institution of slavery should not last indefinitely, they argued against immediate emancipation because it would cause social upheaval. To avoid anarchy— “a far greater evil than slavery itself”—the Church favored gradual emancipation. Some leaders claimed that slaves fared better than poor industrial workers who starved when sick or too old to work.
  • The economy and culture of the South shaped the American Catholic Church of the colonial era and early republic. While northerners supported the gradual freeing of slaves, southern and Catholic republicans deemed slavery as essential to the success of the republic.  This argument became central to the pro-slavery defense articulated between the 1830s and 1850s: “slavery made liberty and republicanism possible.” Because their system assigned manual work to a race of people they saw as inferior, defenders argued that whites were the ones to fulfill the obligations of citizenship in the republic.
  • Mathias Loras adopted the American Catholic culture. Six years after his arrival in the United States, he purchased Marie Louise in 1836 for $800 while a missionary priest and president of Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama. When Pope Gregory XVI created the diocese of Dubuque, in 1837, Loras became the bishop of this frontier territory. He arrived in Dubuque in 1839, leaving Marie Louise in Alabama.
  • Although she never left Mobile, Bishop Loras and the diocese of Dubuque benefited financially from the labors of Marie Louise. Slave-owners, especially in urban areas, leased their slaves to others in the community and then pocketed the income generated. Several letters establish without any doubt that Loras received income generated by his slave. That income helped build the diocese of Dubuque.

This article benefits from the scholarship of Leslie Woodcock Tentler’s American Catholics, A History (2020), Maura Jane Farrelly’s “American Slavery, American Freedom, American Catholicism” (2012), and William B. Kurtz’ Excommunicated from the Union: How the Civil War Created a Separate Catholic America (2015).

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Jon is currently a junior who is double-majoring in Media Studies and Public Relations. He is heavily involved at Loras as a campus photographer, residential adviser, and a sports editor for the school newspaper, The Lorian.

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