Independence Day took on a special poignancy at a Black Catholic conference meeting a few miles from the United States’ capital, as participants at a July 4 workshop reflected on the Catholic Church’s connection to what has been called the nation’s original sin – slavery.

On that day, the Archbishop Lyke Conference hosted a workshop on “Truth and Reconciliation: The Sin of Jesuit Slaveholding,” examining the legacy of the 1838 sale by the Maryland Province of Jesuits of 272 enslaved men, women and children that helped sustain the future of Georgetown University, the nation’s first Catholic institution of higher learning, founded by the order in 1789.

The annual conference is named for the late Atlanta Archbishop James Patterson Lyke, and it seeks to embody his work of celebrating Black Catholic worship and lifting up the gifts of the Black Catholic community in the Church. The workshop unfolded at a convention center in National Harbor, Maryland, located along the Potomac River about 10 miles down river from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. About 370 people from 32 dioceses across the United States attended the July 2-6 conference, and the workshop on the Catholic Church’s legacy of slavery drew a standing-room crowd.

When asked about the irony of examining that topic on Independence Day, one of the workshop’s panelists, Cheryllyn Branche, noted, “For me, I never voiced why I didn’t celebrate the 4th of July the way my nation does.” Referring to June 19, the day in 1865 when it was announced that slavery was abolished in America, she added, “Juneteenth was more important. When I was a little girl, dark skinned in New Orleans, the world didn’t see me as free or equal.”

Then Branche said, “May 24, 2016 – that’s my independence day.”

On that day, she learned that her ancestors – her maternal great, great grandparents Hillary and Henrietta Ford, and their five children, including her maternal great grandfather Basil Ford, who was then an infant, had been been among the 272 enslaved people sold by the Jesuits in that infamous transaction.

Earlier she noted, “Knowing that, and finding that was the most freeing experience I ever had. I felt a connection, an understanding of my own roots and who I am.”

She added, “When I found out, I called all my relatives and my priest. He said, ‘Cheryllyn, what are you going to do?”

Now Branche, an educator for more than 40 years and the retired principal of St. Katharine Drexel Preparatory School in New Orleans, serves as the president of the Board of Directors for the GU272 Descendants Association. That community of descendants, she said, has been engaged in an ongoing dialogue with the Jesuit order and with Georgetown officials, alumni and students.

Cheryllyn Branche, the president of the Board of Directors of the GU272 Descendants Association, addresses the July 4 workshop on “Truth and Reconciliation: The Sin of Jesuit Slaveholding.” (CS photo/Mark Zimmermann)

“I knew this was not a walk we could take alone,” she said, adding that the effort at reconciliation “has to be something we (descendants) are involved in, connected to, and it has to be with God’s grace.”

Branche also spoke about reflecting on the enduring Catholic faith of her ancestors, “who did not perish. They flourished in Louisiana,” despite working in grueling conditions on the plantations there, and they passed on the faith through the generations of their family.

She noted the witness of her maternal grandmother, Louise Ford Rogers, who was born on a plantation, who endured indignities like sitting in the back of her Catholic church during times of segregation, yet remained a woman who devoutly prayed the rosary, was active in her parish and brought Communion and food to shut-ins and taught neighborhood children to read.

Another panelist, Danielle Harrison, noted that her family’s roots are from Haiti, so while she grew up in St. Louis, they celebrated Haiti’s Independence Day on Jan. 1. July 4 is about freedom, she added. “My parents would say, we are here in the United States so you can have freedom and make the choices we didn’t have, so what are you going to do with those choices?”

Harrison, who serves as director of mission and integration at Visitation Academy in St. Louis, her alma mater, also serves on the Jesuits’ advisory committee on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation. The Jesuits’ Ignatian spirituality changed her life, she said, and she reflected on the challenges of reconciling that with the knowledge of the order’s historic ties to slavery in the United States. She noted that the Visitation order that sponsors her school has also had to reckon with its own historic connection to slavery at its Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, founded in Washington, D.C., in 1799.

The United States and its institutions must acknowledge the sins of slavery and of racism in order to achieve reconciliation, she said, adding that the only way to move forward is by “walking together.”

Reflecting on Independence Day and their workshop’s topic, the third panelist, Jesuit Father Timothy Kesicki – the president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States – noted how South Africa had to face its historic connection to apartheid, as Rwanda has had to do with the genocide that occurred in that country, and Germany has had to reckon with its role in the Holocaust.

“The United States has never reconciled its history with slaveholding or its treatment of native Americans,” he said. “I pray for our nation today, so we can reconcile our history and be truly free.”

Reflecting on his own order’s role in slavery, Father Kesicki said, “The Jesuits did it. We bear the sin and the responsibility.”

In 2015, Georgetown University formed a Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation, and it issued a report in 2016. Following the report’s recommendations, the next year, Georgetown hosted a Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition and Hope, and it dedicated Isaac Hawkins Hall, named after the first person listed on the 1838 bill of sale, and Anne Marie Becraft Hall, named after a pioneer African American Catholic education in the Georgetown community. Those buildings had originally been named for the two Jesuits who engineered the sale of the enslaved people.

At that liturgy of reconciliation, Father Kesicki issued a formal apology on behalf of the Jesuit order, saying, “To think that together with those 272 souls, we received the same sacraments, read the same Scriptures, prayed the same prayers sang the same hymns, and praised the same God; how did we, the Society of Jesus, fail to see us all as one body in Christ? We betrayed the very name of Jesus for whom our least society is named.”

At that liturgy, he also said, “Because we are profoundly sorry, we stand before God – and now before you, the descendants of those whom we enslaved – and we apologize for what we have done and what we have failed to do.”

At the Archbishop Lyke Conference, the Jesuit priest noted that when he issued that apology two years earlier, acknowledging that painful history, he also said, “We resist moving on, but embrace moving forward… with hope.”

During a question and answer period, the panelists were asked about the issue of providing financial compensation to descendants of enslaved people.

The panelists emphasized the importance of ongoing dialogue and partnership among the descendants and the Jesuit order and Georgetown University.

This spring in nonbinding referendum, Georgetown students voted to pay a student fee for reparations to the descendants of enslaved people owned and later sold by the school. As it has faced this history, Georgetown has taken several steps, including providing descendants’ families with the same admissions benefits as faculty, staff and alumni, establishing an Institute for the Study of Slavery and its Legacies and a Department of African American Studies, and offering courses about the university’s ties to slavery.

In an email interview, Branche said repairing the breach of slavery’s impact on those families could take the form of “investments to support educational aspirations and family economic needs of descendants going forward, through dialogue and actionable collaboration.”

The workshop’s overall theme, like that of the conference, centered on reconciliation rooted in faith for Black Catholics.

During the workshop, Branche noted her family’s legacy of faith that remains central to her own life.

“I think about how they remained faithful, and it’s just Jesus,” she said. “The faith we practiced came from those ancestors, and the belief we would be better.”

With that knowledge and heritage, she said, “I feel free.”