Catholic Standard El Pregonero
Classifieds Buy Photos

Part 2: Descendants retrace lives of ancestors enslaved by Jesuits at site of St. Inigoes plantation in Southern Maryland

During a Sept. 1, 2023 visit to St. Peter Claver Church in St. inigoes, Maryland, Jeremy Alexander, a participant in the Reclamation Project’s Southern Maryland GU272 – Jesuit Enslaved Descendant Gathering that brought together descendants of 272 enslaved people sold by Jesuits in 1838 to Louisiana plantation owners with descendants of enslaved family members who remained then at that religious order’s Maryland plantations, shows a rosary that he always carries with him, a sign of the deep Catholic faith that his ancestors passed onto him and other descendants. (Catholic Standard photo by Mihoko Owada)

Walking where they walked

On a journey to connect with his family’s past, Jeremy Alexander had come to St. Mary’s County, Maryland, for the first time, 185 years after his enslaved ancestor Anna Mahoney Jones and her two young children, Arnold and Louisa, were forced to leave the St. Inigoes plantation in Southern Maryland and were relocated to a sugarcane plantation in Louisiana as part of the infamous 1838 sale of 272 enslaved men, women and children by the Maryland Society of Jesus that helped ensure the financial survival of the Jesuits’ Georgetown College in Washington, D.C.

The new Random House book by New York Times writer Rachel L.  Swarns – “The 272: The Families Who Were Enslaved and Sold to Build the American Catholic Church” – tells the story of Anna Mahoney Jones and her sister Louisa Mahoney Mason, beloved siblings forever separated by that sale. While Anna and her children were forcibly taken to Louisiana, Louisa was able to remain in Maryland, because she hid in the woods after a sympathetic Jesuit priest, Father Joseph Carbery who managed the St. Inigoes plantation, encouraged the enslaved people there to run and avoid capture by the slave traders.

That book also weaves the story of the descendants of Anna and Louisa Mahoney and how their ancestors clung to their Catholic faith in Louisiana and Maryland and passed on their faith to generations of their family, including to Jeremy Alexander, who when he found out in 2016 about his family’s connection to slavery and the Jesuits, was sitting at his desk at work at Georgetown University, the institution connected to the story of his ancestors’ bondage and separation and their descendants’ ultimate reunion.

On Sept. 1, Alexander – the great-great-great-grandson of Anna Mahoney Jones – made an emotional visit to the site of the St. Inigoes plantation where she once lived, joining other descendants participating in the Reclamation Project’s Southern Maryland GU272 – Jesuit Enslaved Descendant Gathering. From Aug. 31 to Sept. 3, 2023, descendants of ancestors enslaved by the Jesuit order at plantations in Maryland during the 1700s and 1800s gathered together in Southern Maryland to connect with long separated family members and to retrace the lives of their forebears, visiting the sites where they once lived in bondage.

“Today we got to go to St. Inigoes, that is where my ancestors for the most part were,” Alexander said. “It means a lot to me to walk where they walked, taking pictures of the water, (thinking) this is what they saw… To walk over there and reflect on the fact she (Anna) lived there, to just be able to stand in that location was very powerful.”

He said it was very meaningful for him to retrace the lives of his enslaved forebears once regarded as property, and “to actually learn they had first and last names. It’s important we are able to call them by their names.”

At St. Inigoes, he was also able to see the gravesite of Father Carbery at the Jesuit cemetery next to St. Ignatius Church.

Alexander expressed admiration for his ancestors, “that they survived a very dark time in American history. All of us here today are here because they were able to endure the suffering they had to live under.”

The 51-year-old who now works as an executive assistant in Georgetown University’s School of Medicine noted that he was born and raised Catholic in Chicago, attending St.. Thomas Apostle Church in that city’s Hyde Park neighborhood, where he was confirmed by then-Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Wilton Gregory, now the cardinal archbishop of Washington. Alexander attends St. Francis of Assisi Church in Fulton, Maryland, and his son Jesse is a 10th grader at Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda.

“The 272” book by Rachel Swarns also tells how the different branches of the Mahoney family descendants have gotten to know each other after learning of their ancestors’ connection to the Jesuits’ 1838 sale. Through the Ancestry genealogical website, Melissa Kemp, a direct descendant of Louisa Mahoney Mason, connected with Jeremy Alexander, the direct descendant of Louisa’s sister, Anna Mahoney Jones. “We never expected to make these connections,” Alexander said.

Alexander added that he feels a “spiritual connection” to his ancestors. “Learning this history explains why my family is Catholic,” he said, noting that the terms of the 1838 sale required that the enslaved people had to be able to continue to practice their Catholic faith after they were transported to Louisiana. 

Reflecting on the faith of his ancestors, Alexander said, “I think that’s one of the things that got them through slavery. They had this great faith.”

Noting how according to historical accounts, the enslaved people being transported from Maryland to the Louisiana plantations asked the Jesuit priests for rosaries to take with them, Alexander – who is a deputy grand knight with the Knights of Columbus – lifted a small rosary case from his pocket, adding, “I (always) carry my rosary with me.”

Jeremy Alexander, who works at Georgetown University, and his son Jesse, a 10th grader at Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda, attend a Sept. 2 session at St. Mary’s College of Maryland in St. Mary’s City for participants in in the Reclamation Project’s Southern Maryland GU272 – Jesuit Enslaved Descendant Gathering. (Catholic Standard photo by Mark Zimmermann)

A museum honoring ancestors

Later that morning after visiting the site of the St. Inigoes plantation, the descendants attending the Southern Maryland gathering rode 0n a bus and drove in cars to nearby St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, also in St. Inigoes, where they had lunch and then had a preview tour of the parish’s African American History Museum that organizers hope to open in 2024.

The historic parish near the southern tip of Maryland began as a mission for Black Catholics in the early 1900s after they experienced racism and segregation at a nearby Catholic church. The museum traces the history of St. Peter Claver Parish and its Catholic school, which from 1924 until its last graduating class in 1967 was staffed by the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first religious order for women of African descent. Adjacent to St. Peter Claver Church was the Cardinal Gibbons Institute, a high school for Black students founded in 1924 that was modeled after the Tuskegee Institute and offered academic, industrial and agricultural programs. The depression caused it to suspend its operation from 1933 to 1938, and it reopened as the Cardinal Gibbons High School, which closed in 1967.

In addition to displays of vintage photographs with explanatory texts, the museum has artifacts from different eras of the parish and school, including old tools, an antique Singer sewing machine and a pair of a schoolgirl’s shoes.

“Those are our stories,” said Claudette Bennett, the archivist for St. Peter Claver Parish and a lifelong parishioner there.

A display at the African History Museum at St. Peter Claver Parish in St. Inigoes, Maryland, includes a display on the Cardinal Gibbons Institute, which provided a high school education and vocational training to Black residents of that part of St. Mary’s County beginning in 1924.

‘Reconnecting broken lives’

The descendants who gathered in the St. Peter Claver parish hall on Sept. 1 included Kareem J. Bowen from Saginaw, Michigan, who is 50 and is a pastor with the nondenominational Potter’s Touch Ministries and also has a radio show and works as an entrepreneur and consultant. He was joined by his mother, Geri Bowen Walker.

Kareem Bowen noted that his fifth great grandfather was Isaac Hawkins, an enslaved man whose name was the first listed on the Jesuits’ 1838 bill of sale. In 2017, Georgetown University renamed a campus building as Isaac Hawkins Hall to honor the legacy of the 272 enslaved men, women and children whose sale helped the debt-ridden college survive.

The people attending the Southern Maryland GU272 – Jesuit Enslaved Descendant Gathering at. St. Peter Claver parish hall in St. Inigoes, Maryand, on Sept. 1 included Kareem J. Bowen from Saginaw, Michigan, who was joined at left by his mother, Geri Bowen Walker. (Catholic Standard photo by Mark Zimmermann)

Bowen praised the opportunity to connect with fellow descendants. “This weekend has been everything. It means connecting with our lineage – it always ran into a dead end… We had been trying for a long time to connect the pieces of our family lineage,” he said.

His enslaved ancestors include Bibiana Mahoney, who like her sister Anna Mahoney Jones was transported to Louisiana while their sister Louisa Mahoney Mason remained in Maryland.

Learning about those ancestors, he said, “was an emotional experience. Being a pastor and a man of faith, seeing what a group of religious were partly responsible for, with the enslavement and separation of people, it took a bit of real processing. I’m glad the Catholic Church is playing a role with reconnecting those broken lives.”

The gathering of descendants received a grant from Georgetown University’s Reconciliation Fund. The university held a 2017 liturgy to offer a public apology for the 1838 sale, and it has also established the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation that is supporting efforts focusing on racial healing and scholarships and grants for students in descendant families.

Reflecting on his ancestors, Bowen said he admires “how they persevered through all the struggles and hardships, and he said “the rich history of our people” also includes the experiences and successes of the generations that followed them.

An enlightening experience

Among the guests joining the descendants at the Aug. 31 to Sept. 3 Southern Maryland gathering was Jesuit Father Gregory Chisholm, an African American priest from Harlem in New York City who is the superior of the Jesuits in Baltimore.

Jesuit Father Gregory Chisholm, the superior for the Jesuits in Baltimore, arrives at a Sept. 2 session at St. Mary’s College of Maryland in St. Mary’s City for participants in in the Reclamation Project’s Southern Maryland GU272 – Jesuit Enslaved Descendant Gathering. (Catholic Standard photo by Mark Zimmermann)

“I have found this particular experience enlightening on several levels,” said Father Chisholm. “It’s enlightening to be with Black men and women trying earnestly to discover their roots, where they came from, their ancestry.”

He added, “I’m quite in awe being able to see the earliest Jesuit foundations” in Southern Maryland. Jesuit Father Andrew White celebrated the first Catholic Mass in the English-speaking colonies in 1634 at St. Clement’s Island in Maryland, and seven years later established St. Ignatius Church in Chapel Point, which the descendants had visited on Aug. 31 before visiting the sites of the Jesuits’ plantations in St. Inigoes and in Newtowne the next day.

Reflecting on the Jesuits’ connection to slavery, Father Chisholm said, “Slavery, it’s hard to find a way to justify that, harder to justify the Church and the Jesuits’ involvement in slavery and sadder that the Jesuits were involved in selling slaves.”

The Jesuit priest said that in 2023, the African American men and women descended from those enslaved people “are the positive good that has come out of a very disturbing and saddening and immoral situation. Most of them are Christians. Many are still Catholics, and many are still faithful Catholics.”

Reflecting on that legacy of faith passed on from the ancestors that endures in their descendants, Father Chisholm noted that most of his ministry as a Jesuit priest has involved serving largely African American congregations at Catholic churches.

“I have drawn strength from that faith. That’s how I survived,” he said.

Jesuit Father Gregory Chisholm gives Communion to a woman during a Sept. 3, 2023 Mass at St. Peter Claver Church in St. Inigoes, Maryland, that was attended by participants of the Southern Maryland GU272 – Jesuit Enslaved Descendant Gathering.  (Catholic Standard photo by Mihoko Owada)

Links to related stories:

Descendants of people enslaved and sold by the Jesuits in 1838 reunite for family reunion in Southern Maryland

Part 1: Descendants of ancestors enslaved by Jesuits reconnect with family members and heritage in Southern Maryland gathering