This morning, The Washington Post published a story about research that six of our students did over the summer at the Georgetown University archives. They were looking into whether Georgetown’s Washington Seminary, the antecedent institution to Gonzaga College, had ties to the institution of slavery. I’m writing today to tell you how this research project came about, what the boys found, and how Gonzaga’s Ignatian heritage is informing our community’s response.
The spirituality of St. Ignatius Loyola has its foundation in the conversion of the human heart. His spiritual masterpiece, the month-long retreat known as the Spiritual Exercises, begins with a profound examination of one’s own sinful past. A person making the retreat prays for a deep knowledge and understanding of one’s own participation in sin, both individual and corporate. It is only when we understand, accept, and embrace our sinfulness that a deeper relationship with God’s mercy can begin. Only then can forgiveness be sought and redemption experienced.
Several years ago, the Jesuits of the United States, in coordination with our oldest academic institution, Georgetown University, sought to understand more deeply the Society of Jesus’ participation in the institution of slavery in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. Georgetown convened a Working Group on Slavery to research more fully the participation of the Jesuits in the institution of slavery and to seek reconciliation with the descendants of those enslaved persons.
This past April, I represented the Gonzaga community at the public apology that the Jesuits of the United States made to the descendants of those slaves who gathered at Georgetown. For me personally, it was a powerful experience of accepting a part of my Jesuit history that I wish were not there. It was also a profound experience in seeking forgiveness in spite of the fact that it is completely undeserved. If you have not seen it, I encourage you to watch an excerpt here
As a part of that process, last year Gonzaga invited Georgetown University history professor Adam Rothman to address our student body about his work as a member of the Georgetown Working Group on Slavery. He presented the group’s findings to our student body in the Sheehy Theater, and though painful, his work had a profound impact on our students. His presentation inspired a group of Gonzaga students to investigate whether the Washington Seminary might also have a connection to slavery.
With the help of history teacher Ed Donnellan, and with guidance and support from Professor Rothman, Gonzaga students Joe Boland, Matthew Johnson, Danny Podratsky, Jack Boland, Jack Brown, and Hameed Nelson launched their own working group to investigate Gonzaga’s past as it might relate to slavery.
When we returned from summer break, Mr. Donnellan presented the group’s work to Headmaster Tom Every; Fr. Gap LoBiondo, the Superior of the Jesuit Community here on Eye Street; and myself, and asked to present it to the student body when school resumed. That presentation happened last week. Over the weekend, I spoke with a reporter from The Washington Post
who was interested in doing a story on the boys’ work. The resulting article appears in today’s paper
I wish to commend Ed and these six students for their extraordinary work. While more needs to be done to flesh out the details of Gonzaga’s past, it is clear that the Washington Seminary had connections to slavery in the earliest years of its existence. This is a fact about our past that we cannot deny, and it is one that we need to face with sincere humility.
Why does it matter that that the Washington Seminary had connections to slavery nearly 190 years ago? Because in order to be true to who we are as a Gonzaga community we need to stand before God not just celebrating our laurels and accomplishments, but acknowledging our sins and failings. Our past sinfulness matters, both as individuals and institutions. As much as we hate to admit it, our past sinfulness has an impact on who we are today. It is only when we accept our entire history, the good and the bad, that God’s mercy can move our hearts to greater humility, compassion, and understanding.
The Jesuit apology for slave holding last spring at Georgetown was not intended to bring an end to this difficult conversation. Likewise, the work of our students into our own Gonzaga past is not intended to close the book on this topic. On the contrary, I encourage the entire Gonzaga community to enter prayerfully and with great humility into an examination of our past with all of its triumphs and failings. I encourage us to look at how our past impacts us today, particularly as our country grapples with the difficult legacy of racism that still is far from extinguished from our society. Finally, I ask that we all ask God for the grace of conversion so that we might work to remove from our hearts anything in us that keeps us from seeing all men and women as our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Reverend Stephen W. Planning, SJ
Update: On Wednesday, September 27, The Washington Post
published a follow-up to their original story. You can read it here.