Walking on Hallowed Ground

The Slavery, History, Memory and Reconciliation Project 

April 1, 2019 - On a clear, cool day in March, a small group of Jesuit colleagues made a somber journey. The group of eight visited several locales in north St. Louis County, outside St. Louis. Their quest: to visit sites of significance to the early Jesuits in St. Louis and to the people enslaved by those Jesuits.  

Jesuits in the 19th century depended on the labor of enslaved people to build and maintain their institutions. When a dozen Jesuits traveled from Maryland in 1823 to establish the Missouri Mission, they brought with them six enslaved men and women, three married couples. Over the next 42 years, Jesuits based in Missouri would own, rent or borrow at least 150 people in five states. The majority of the enslaved people were based in the St. Louis area, made to work at St. Stanislaus Seminary, St. Louis College or the College Farm. The North St. Louis County tour visited some of those sites. 

Kelly Schmidt, research coordinator for the Slavery, History, Memory and Reconciliation (SHMR) Project, planned the itinerary and acted as tour guide for the group. The Jesuits USA Central and Southern (UCS) Province and Saint Louis University (SLU) co-sponsor the project, and the tour participants included representatives of both institutions, including the project’s co-directors, David Miros, director of the Jesuit Archives & Research Center and Jonathan Smith, SLU’s vice president for diversity and community engagement. 

Old St. Ferdinand's Shrine, Florissant, Mo.
Jesuits once operated the Church at Old St. Ferdinand's Shrine, Florissant, Mo.

The first stop was Old St. Ferdinand Shrine in Florissant, Mo. Best known by St. Louisans for its connections to St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, the Religious of the Sacred Heart who ran a boarding school for girls there for several years, the parish was once staffed by Jesuits. The people enslaved by the Jesuits were baptized Catholic and attended St. Ferdinand Church, and some labored there without pay.

“Jesuit leaders decided that priests assigned as pastor to St. Ferdinand would have an enslaved person to serve them,” Schmidt said. 

A short walk away from Old St. Ferdinand is Spanish Land Grant Park. Now a small, two-acre public park, some of the enslaved people who served the priest at St. Ferdinand may have lived here prior to 1836. It is also the site of the original St. Ferdinand cemetery. Both enslaved and free people were buried here, although their graves are not marked. 

Spanish Land Grant Park  
Spanish Land Grant Park in Florissant, Mo., occupies the site of the former St. Ferdinand Cemetery. 

Next came a visit to the “old rock building” constructed in 1840 as a novitiate for the Jesuit mission. The meagre enslaved quarters are now long gone, but the limestone building stands as a testament to the skill and craftsmanship of the Jesuits and the people they enslaved, as well as the suffering endured by the enslaved. 

“Records tell the story of enslaved people being forced to cut and haul stones from a quarry several miles away along the Missouri River,” Schmidt said. “Many enslaved people became ill in the process from diseases associated with stagnant water.”

The old stone building at the old St. Stanislaus Novitiate

Father Jeffrey Harrison, SJ, one of the researchers on the Slavery, History, Memory & Reconciliation Project, tells the history of the Old Rock Building at the former Jesuit novitiate.

The Jesuits used the building as a novitiate for more than 130 years. It currently serves as the library for Urshan College. 

Etta Daniels (left) and Shelly Morris at Greenwood Cemetery
Etta Daniels (left) and Shelley Morris advocate for Greenwood Cemetery in North St. Louis

In the afternoon, the group visited Greenwood and Calvary Cemeteries. Only a few miles apart, the differences between the two are stark and revealing. Opened in 1874, Greenwood Cemetery in Normandy, Mo., was the first commercial cemetery for African Americans in St. Louis. While it opened after the end of slavery in the U.S., formerly enslaved people were laid to rest there, as were their descendants. 

After Greenwood was closed to new burials in 1981, the grounds were neglected for years until a group of dedicated volunteers took on the challenge of restoring it. It is estimated that as many as 50,000 people are buried there, but only a small percentage of those graves is clearly identified.  

Greenwood Cemetery features a memorial to Harriet Scott, an enslaved woman who sued for her freedom along with her husband, Dred Scott. Mrs. Scott is the most famous person buried at Greenwood, but Etta Daniels, the leader of the Greenwood Cemetery Preservation Association, wants the community to learn about other lesser-known barrier-breakers. 

“We know the big names – Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr. – but there are so many others we don’t know,” Ms. Daniels said, citing civil rights activists, Buffalo Soldiers, the first Black postal carrier in St. Louis and numerous musicians as examples. 

Headstones of Military Veterans at Greenwood Cemetery A father and two sons, all U.S. Military Veterans, at rest in Greenwood Cemetery in St. Louis 
By contrast, Calvary Cemetery has always been well maintained. It contains the graves of several notable Catholic St. Louisans, many with imposing monuments. It also includes the more modest headstone of Dred Scott, who was re-buried there by the owner who gave him his freedom after his lawsuit was unsuccessful.

Dred Scott's Grave at Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis
Dred Scott's final owner paid to bury him at
Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis.
Harriet Scott is buried at Greenwood Cemetery.

Adjacent to Dred Scott’s grave is a plot for members of St. Elizabeth’s Church, a now-defunct African-American parish once run by the Jesuits. The early members of St. Elizabeth’s included formerly-enslaved people and their descendants. These graves do not boast large monuments; most are not marked with any stone at all.  

Just down the way is a family plot, shared by the families of Charles Tyler and his business partner, Theodore Reeves. Charles and his mother, Matilda Tyler, are among the 12 people buried there. Their graves are unmarked. Both were born into slavery, owned by Jesuits. While enslaved, Matilda, her husband, George (who belonged to a different owner), and their sons performed additional labor to earn extra money, which they used to buy Matilda and her five sons’ freedom. 

The visit to Calvary included a stop at the grave of Thomas Franklin (1838-1948). Franklin has a small, flat marker, sandwiched between two large monuments to St. Louis Archbishops John Kain and Peter Kenrick, two of the three St. Louis bishops he served as valet. Franklin was born into slavery and moved to St. Louis after the Civil War and began working for Archbishop Kenrick.  

St. Elizabeth's Plot 
The burial plot where Matilda Tyler and her son Charles are buried. They were born into slavery and purchased their freedom from Jesuits.  

The tour ended at the Jesuit burial plot at Calvary; the group had come full circle. Marked by a large aluminum cross, the Jesuit plot includes the remains of Jesuits moved in 2003 from the cemetery at St. Stanislaus. The markers highlight the names of the first Jesuits to settle in the St. Louis area, the original 12 missionaries who arrived with six enslaved laborers who had no choice about whether to journey so far from their families, whom they would never see again.

The six enslaved people are named on one of the markers, but when the stone was erected in 2003, only their first names were known. Now, thanks to the researchers of the Slavery, History, Memory and Reconciliation Project, their full names are known: Isaac and Susan (or Susanna, but called Succy) Hawkins (alternatively, Queen), Tom and Mary (usually called Molly or Polly) Brown and Moses and Nancy Queen.

The Queens, Hawkinses and Browns are not buried at Calvary Cemetery. Records show most were buried at St. Ferdinand’s cemetery, in what is now Spanish Land Grant Park. 

The people involved with the Slavery, History, Memory and Reconciliation Project are working to learn about the lives of the people who were enslaved. They are also trying to identify descendants of the Queens, Hawkinses and Browns – and other enslaved people - so that one day it will be descendants who take, or lead, this tour.  

Learn more about the Slavery, History, Memory and Reconciliation Project.


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