Bishop Loras: A public historian’s view

By Conor Kelly (TheLorian)

An announcement from President Jim Collins opened the gates for a broader debate about how we view controversial historical figures and their respective statues.

Last Tuesday, Sept. 8, President Jim Collins revealed that the statue to Bishop Loras, the founder of Loras College, had enslaved a woman, Marie Louise. Despite moving to Iowa, Bishop Loras continued to hold her in bondage, renting her out to others in Mobile, Alabama, until he died in 1852. This is pertinent for Loras and its campus body, as it is faced with questions as to what to do with Bishop Loras’ statue. More than that, however, the debate over Bishop Loras is part of broader reckoning for our community—a community that has long-neglected questions about the historical usefulness of such a controversial statue. 

Insofar as they are used in public, statues are not merely symbols of an abstract historical past; they represent a desired set of values and principles that the public and community must endure. In Ancient Rome, figures meant to embody the military cast were depicted on horseback, symbolizing their masculinity, militarism, and political potency in the public eye. A sculpture, or statue, is a statement of communal intent, depicting what the people at large hold to be valuable or honorable. They have no historical value on their own. 

As I have noted in previous essays, historical context determines an object’s historical value, not the item itself. If anything, objects take on symbolic significance because of the context from which they were spawned. As such, how we present a figure doesn’t just reflect on the depicted figure alone, but also reflects the society that maintains and perpetuates the sculpture’s existence. For this reason, historians and the public alike must endeavor to balance conservation and a good public presentation. By this, I mean that a society must preserve its history, but more than that, we must work to preserve it in its proper context. Scholars largely knew of Bishop Loras’ slave ownership, but those scholars sought to downplay and humanize his oppressive ownership. With this in mind, a new context is necessary if we are to evolve in our history.

 With the news about Bishop Loras, it is increasingly evident that his statue was rightfully removed, but what happens to it from this point is much less clear. Indeed, what is considered “proper context” will vary wildly among the student body, but that does not make the discussion any less important or worthwhile. For some, this statue represents the long-respected history of this college and the Catholic identity. However, for others, it is a symbol of a man who denied the very humanity of Blacks by his oppressive ownership of a human being. Removing his statue does not remove his legacy, but it does force us to recontextualize his legacy and how it affects us in the modern era. 

 With the fall of Loras’ statue, we as a community are given a new opportunity to reassess our history and what it means to be a part of the broader Catholic identity. Even for those who do not share in the Catholic tradition, the meaning of this painful revelation will still be felt, as Catholic social teaching is a vital component of the college’s curriculum. In the end, the community at large will have to reckon with the legacy of White Supremacy while at the same time, it must endeavor to preserve the Catholic roots that built not only this college but Dubuque itself. But Dubuque is not its past, nor is Loras College. Loras, like many communities before it, is ever-changing. It is subject to new people, new perspectives, and new ways of thinking. Whatever decision is made about Bishop Loras’ statue, it must reflect the ever-changing community that we love. For our sake, and for the sake of those who come after us.

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Conor J. Kelly was the Opinion Editor for the Lorian and a prolific staff writer. He graduated from Loras College in April of 2021 and is now pursuing his master's in political science at the University of Illinois, Springfield. You can find his new work on The Progressive American newsletter.

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