Reconciling Social and Racial Injustices in Our Histories

The following article appeared in Actions, a bi-annual publication of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus – American Province, in Fall 2020. The article can be found on page 11.

As our country and world seek racial justice and equality, the Sisters of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus are reflecting on the Society’s historical role and their own modern-day complicity with systemic racism and inequality. Like many religious communities, organizations, and individuals, the Holy Child Sisters are examining their hearts, minds, and actions to more clearly identify and thereby reconcile their sinfulness.

The Society of the Holy Child Jesus was founded by Cornelia Connelly in 1846 in Derby, England, 13 years after the United Kingdom’s Slavery Abolition Act. In 1862, three years before slavery was abolished in the United States, Cornelia sent Sisters from England to America. In 1930, the Society expanded its ministry to West Africa, and in 1963, the first African member of the Society entered the novitiate. To date, the Sisters have found no evidence that the Society supported or participated in the enslavement of people.

Roseanne McDougall, SHCJ, American Province Leader Carroll Juliano, SHCJ, Erin Brown, and Jeanne Marie Hatch, SHCJ, pose for a photo at Rosemont College in November 2019. Ms. Brown is the descendant of Phoebe Grayson and Sarah (Sally) Gough, two enslaved people who worked for the Connellys for approximately eight years between 1832-1842. Since the 1930s, the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus have been in contact with the descendants of the Grayson/Gough family. The family has been doing research with the American Province Archives to further understand their heritage and family tree. The family has also been collaborating with the American Province to learn more about the Connelly’s history. Ms. Brown is the great-great-great-great granddaughter of Phoebe Grayson and great-great-great granddaughter of Sally Gough.

The Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus acknowledge and have publicly documented that Cornelia’s husband, Pierce, was given two enslaved people – Phoebe Grayson and her daughter Sarah (Sally) Gough – while living in Natchez, Mississippi, and serving as an Episcopalian rector. Phoebe and Sally were a “gift” from one of Pierce’s sponsors, Dr. Newton Mercer, after Cornelia delivered their first-born son in 1832. Pierce and Cornelia named their son Mercer, in honor of Dr. Mercer. In 1842, when the Connellys were living in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, Pierce had decided to become a Roman Catholic priest and move to Rome, Italy. He sold or transferred ownership of Phoebe and Sally to the neighboring Jesuit College, where Sally’s husband, Ignatius, was a slave.

In 2018, Rosemont College, located in a suburb of Philadelphia and founded in 1921 by the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus as a female Catholic college, established a commission to research the College’s history with enslaved people. The commission found that there was “no concrete evidence of the impact of slavery on Rosemont College.” The commission confirmed the Society’s published findings that Pierce was given and had sold or transferred ownership of enslaved people.

With deep sadness and remorse, the Society of the Holy Child Jesus believes that the Connellys were blind to the sin of racism. The Sisters recognize that Cornelia’s early life led her in directions that were often challenging and sometimes difficult to reconcile. When Cornelia founded the Society, she stressed the importance of honoring the dignity and uniqueness of every person. This reverence and respect for all individuals remains the hallmark of her educational legacy and is carried forward by the Sisters today as they continue to “meet the wants of the age” and help those in need.

In the Society’s 175th Anniversary year, we stand in solidarity with all those who work to dismantle systemic racism, including in our Holy Child schools and ministries. We reaffirm our commitment to creating a more just and harmonious world through our actions and with reverence for all.