Here's a sample of the work that was being carried out in 2007
“Can a man serve God faithfully and posess slaves?” Brother Joseph Mobberly, S.J. asked in his diary in 1818. “Yes,” he answered. “Is it then lawful to keep men in servitude? Yes.”
The Jesuits of the Maryland province had always relied on plantations to support their ministries. The estates were extensive, totaling 12,000 acres on four large properties in Southern Prince Georges, Charles and St. Mary’s counties, and two smaller estates on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. In 1634, when the Jesuits arrived in Maryland, Lord Baltimore awarded them quasi-estates in which they were permitted to live off the rent of tenant farmers. However, as University Dean Hubert Cloke explains, “The system was totally antiquated and romantic, not related to reality, and they realized they were not going to make any money.” So, the Jesuits turned to indentured servants, English men and women who worked the land for set terms in return for the passage from England to Maryland. But as working conditions improved in England, the supply of indentured servants dropped and the Jesuits once again found a new way to work the land. By the 1680s they relied upon a fully developed slave system.
Compared to other plantation owners in the area, when it came to slavery, “The Jesuits were no better or worse,” according to Cloke. Many of the slaves had been gifts from wealthy Catholic families to sustain the Church. The abolition of slavery was not an issue in the area until the early nineteenth century, when Georgetown’s Jesuits became deeply divided over the issue of slavery.
“But they were not conflicted in the way you would want,” Cloke said. “They were conflicted over what to do about the threat of abolitionists.”
In a generational divide, an older group of Jesuits, mostly European born, felt a patriarchal connection to their slaves and were unwilling to sell them. A younger, American-born group, a minority, felt that the money invested in plantations should be spent on institutions in cities like Philadelphia and New York with their rapidly growing Catholic populations. It seems neither faction had any particular moral quandaries with the six plantations and the nearly 300 slaves owned by Georgetown’s and Maryland’s Jesuits.
This rift is just one of the things American Studies students learned when history professors like Cloke and Emmett Curran introduced the Jesuit Plantation Project into the American Studies curriculum in the spring of 1996. The project involved students transcribing and digitizing hundreds of documents from the Jesuit’s Maryland Province Index recording the Georgetown’s Jesuits’ complicated relationship with slavery.
With only two exceptions, all the higher-ranking Jesuits in the province during the time were foreign-born and of the older faction. Since only U.S. citizens had temporal jurisdiction, foreign Jesuits had no authority over the Mission’s estates.