Llast year the American branch of the Jesuits pledged to raise $100 million for a reconciliation initiative in partnership with descendants of people once enslaved by the Catholic order. On Tuesday, a leader of those descendants expressed deep displeasure with the order’s lack of progress since then.
Joseph Stewart, in a publicly released letter to the head of the order, argued that the Jesuits had failed to assert their side of the partnership with the urgency that the circumstances demanded. Stewart and other descendants are descendants of 272 enslaved men, women and children sold in 1838 by the Jesuit owners of Georgetown University to Louisiana plantation owners to pay off the school’s debts.
The Jesuits “are in a state of disillusionment,” Stewart wrote, warning of the possible dissolution of the partnership between the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States and the GU272 Descendants Association, which represents those whose ancestors were sold.
If the partnership falls apart, “today’s Jesuit leaders will effectively betray posterity today, just as the Jesuits of the past betrayed our ancestors,” Stewart wrote. “The Jesuits will try to put reconciliation back on the shelf for another 200 years while the voices for ‘fix’ get louder and louder and louder and louder.”
Their partnership and joint creation of the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation was announced in March 2021. The Jesuits pledged to raise $100 million over five years with a broader goal of reaching $1 billion from a pool of donors. The money will pay for educational opportunities for current and future descendants, and the foundation will oversee fundraising and grant distribution.
In his letter to the leader of the international religious order, the Reverend Arturo Sosa, Stewart urged the Jesuits to act urgently and fund the descendants’ trust so that racial reconciliation grants, scholarships and care for the elderly can move forward.
Stewart suggested the delay in funding was caused by the Jesuits’ reluctance to transfer about $57 million in proceeds from the sale of plantation land in 2009 to the trust. In his letter to Sosa, he insisted on the sale of the remaining plantation lands and the deposit of these proceeds by Christmas. Stewart also laid out a phased, multi-year funding schedule that begins with a $100 million deposit by July 2023 and ends with a $1 billion addition by July 2029.
“Fundraising alone has not provided enough resources to make the foundation effective and begin to deliver on the promise,” Stewart told The Associated Press. “It hasn’t derailed the initiative, but it’s just going too slowly.” We have to speed it up.”
The Eastern Province of the Jesuits in the US has hired two firms to help sell the remaining land owned by the Jesuits, with the proceeds going entirely into a trust for descendants, the Eastern Province said in a statement Monday.
It is also discussing how the province could use proceeds from the sale of the Maryland plantation in 2009 to benefit the trust’s descendants, but a province or conference cannot unilaterally decide on the order, the statement said. Part of that $57 million was used to build a retirement center and supplement a fund that helps African-American students attending Jesuit schools, with the rest of the money deposited into the Jesuit Trust for the Aged and Infirm.
The Rev. Timothy Kesicki, chairman of the Descendants’ Trust and former president of the Jesuit Conference, said the process of transferring funds from the land sale to the trust was already underway, but it was complicated and “the pace of fundraising has been rough. He added that the process is so new for all involved.
“It is still in question how this foundation will work. There’s still a lot of work we’re doing to bring this vision to the wider community,” Kesicki said. “I’m not surprised by the slow start. But we are determined to take it to the finish line.”
The Jesuits are still on track to transfer $100 million to the trust within three to five years of the March 2021 announcement, he said. Kesicki is seeking grants to bring more people and money to those goals.
In 2017 he apologized of the descendants of The 272 enslaved people which were sold by the Jesuit owners of the university. Stewart would like Pope Francis to make a similar apology. In his letter to Sosa, he requested, after his April invitation, that Francis visit the descendants.
It would be a deeply meaningful papal act, said Stewart, who spoke of the pain he has personally endured as a devout Catholic whose ancestors were enslaved by the church he holds dear.
“It all starts with admitting the mistake,” he said. “But if you apologize and walk away, it has no value. It has to be a starting point to make a life-enhancing change.”
Associated Press religion coverage is supported through AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc. AP bears all responsibility for this content.
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