Dear Friends,


Each year, we set aside a day to honor the history, traditions and spirituality that define Georgetown Visitation. Today, Founders Day, is a time to learn and reflect on those who came before us and to contemplate how we can continue to live our Salesian values more fully. In this spirit, earlier today I stood in front of our students to share with them my reflections on a difficult chapter of our school's history: slavery. I want to share those remarks with you, our alumnae, so that we may all better understand our shared history and work together to create a more equitable world for all of God's children.


As background, last year we convened a special monastery and school joint project: The History of Enslaved People at Georgetown Visitation: Learning, Reflecting, and Teaching, sponsored by the St. Jane de Chantal Salesian Center. Our goals are to research and interpret evidence of enslaved people at Georgetown Visitation; to foster dialogue about not only our history that shapes us, but the difficulties this evidence may cause; and to encourage critical thinking, reflection, prayer, and action within our school and Monastery community.


That enslaved people labored on Georgetown Visitation's campus is not new information, but it has been largely unexplored until now. When the Salesian Center was founded in May 2016, we were able to hire Dr. Susan Nalezyty, a well-published historian, to serve as our full-time School Archivist. This past year, she has been researching evidence of Georgetown Visitation's enslaved community. She is currently working in tandem with our Monastery Archivist to locate and transcribe letters and records in the Monastery Archives, which will provide critical context for public records outside our walls. Her work will help us reclaim the identities of some of those who were enslaved at Visitation from 1800 to 1862. Our project will also examine unpublished documentary evidence on some of our campus' oldest buildings, which may be associated with this history.


We undertake this work at a pivotal moment in our nation's history. Daily, we see evidence of the deep wounds slavery has left on us as a nation. We want not only to acknowledge this painful part of our history, but to really examine it; not just to reflect on this pain, but to take clear steps forward to ensure our community is welcoming and inclusive; not just to improve our community within these walls, but to use these insights to make our world a more equitable place for all human beings.


One of our Salesian Little Virtues is honesty and we are committed to openness and transparency as we move forward together. Once our research is complete, we plan to share it with you and to humbly and prayerfully work with our community to take what we have learned and translate it into action that will improve our school and the world around us. There will be opportunities for you to share your insights and experiences to enrich this vital work.


In closing, I invite you to join us in prayer and reflection, not only offering contrition for the injustices of the past, but also asking for God's guidance so that we may be agents of change in our world today.




Sister Mary Berchmans Hannan


Remarks on the History of Enslaved People at Georgetown Visitation

Presented on Founders Day, October 12, 2017


Our Monastery and school, through many long years, have enriched one another as they have shared in the ministry of educating young women. We have been one Visitation family, sharing the Catholic faith, our Salesian charism, and a long and remarkable 218-year history on this very same spot. I come to you today in my role as Monastery Superior to share with you the initial efforts of a special joint school-Monastery project on the History of Enslaved People at Georgetown Visitation: Learning, Reflecting and Teaching.


Sadly, like so many educational institutions of the early and mid-1800s, our religious community also owned enslaved persons, and these individuals contributed to the Monastery and school's success. We hope now that their stories will be recovered as much as the historical record allows.


Looking at this period in the history of our religious community through the lens of the 21st century is indeed difficult. We ask: how could one professed to "Living Jesus", contribute to the enslavement of another person? Sadly, this is our religious community's history; it is our shame, our yoke to bear as we strive to grow in greater understanding of who lived and labored on this campus.


We also ask: how could the authors of the Declaration of Independence write these compelling words, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Yet all were owners of large numbers of enslaved people. I believe this indicates that the power of a culture in any historic era can make those living in its midst unconscious of the far-reaching moral effects of its reality.


Our religious community has felt a need to turn our attention to this important and uncomfortable time in our history, for ourselves, certainly, but also for our school. We need to know our story, since it is woven into the fabric of our history as a Monastery and a school.


We wish to discover the identity of those who were enslaved here between 1800 and 1862 and, historically, to gain a richer sense of how and why our Sisters had enslaved people. We wish to learn, with as much certainty as possible, the facts about these people and their impact on and contributions to our community.


Several questions that arose among our sisters in our discussions need to be answered by further research. How extensive was the presence of enslaved people on this small property? How did the sisters interact with enslaved people? To what extent did the sisters engage in the purchase of enslaved people? What was their relationship with the children of enslaved people?  What steps did they take to help enslaved families stay together? Answers to these questions might be recovered, but only as much as the historical records allow.


We might never fully understand this paradox, that Georgetown Visitation's religious community has a slaveholding history. But we no longer will need to speculate on what we cannot answer. What we can do, is acknowledge and try to act today, and in the future, to be more sensitive in our own thoughts and more inclusive in our actions to create a society that is just for all.


To this point, our School Archivist, Dr. Nalezyty has been doing two things: researching and talking to experts and colleagues on how best to approach and interpret this uncomfortable subject. Our school has two published histories that reference the presence of enslaved people on this campus. Dr. Nalezyty has found additional information in public records such as census and military records, church records, and city directories. She now is receiving help from Sr. Mada-anne who is sharing information from the Monastery archives.


As we continue to reflect upon the fact that our sisters in the 19th century owned enslaved people, our present religious community had some heart-felt discussions. Let me share with you two brief reflections our present Sisters shared about this painful chapter in our history.


"The history of enslaved people is an indictment for all of us who have been involved in any way. We need to have a deep sense of sorrow for the past, but must also develop a determination to address any social problems of injustice that exist in our areas of responsibility today."


"We are called to grieve that the custom of buying and selling other human beings ever happened. We are called to make certain that this inhuman treatment of other men and women never happens again. This knowledge should lead us to center on the social injustices of our own day. Now that we are aware of injustices of the past, we must address injustices rampant in our world today."


The spirit of our religious community today is to experience deep sorrow for this sad chapter in our history. As we experience this sorrow, we are determined to address the injustices present in today's world. To this end, we are offering a Holy Hour of Prayer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus each Friday afternoon in repentance for the past, but also in strong support of those suffering in our world today. We are offering a monetary gift each month to those in need of support and, importantly, are assuming our civic duty to make our voices heard.


In the face of today's recurring conflicts, such as those that took place in Charlottesville recently, let us remember the values upon which our country was initially established. Let us join together in pledging ourselves to be sensitive to ways in which the abuse of human rights continues today and be determined to stand up against them. Personally, I pray that my heart and mind may be open always to ways in which I can alleviate the sufferings endured by so many people of color because of the racism that still exists in our country.


In closing, I share with you words to a hymn we sang in a recent Monastery liturgy. It holds a prayer that seems so appropriate for this moment. I share just a few lines.


Let us build a house where love can dwell and all can safely live, a place where saints and children tell how hearts forgive … built of hopes and dreams and visions, rock of faith and vault of grace, here the love of Christ shall end divisions – all are welcome to this place.


Let us build a house where hands will reach beyond wood and stone to heal and strengthen, to serve and teach, and live the Word they've known. Here the outcast and the stranger bear the image of God's face; let us bring an end to fear and danger. … All are welcome, all are welcome in this place.


Finally, I ask that we join together in supportive prayer each day as we continue to face this difficult past with honesty and courage, and pledge ourselves to become sensitive people who will make a difference in our suffering world today. Thank you.


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