Prayer service, Maafa commemoration in St. Louis

Community event draws attention to truth of slave trade in St. Louis archdiocese


Prayer, songs and the stories of people who were enslaved in St. Louis were at the forefront of a prayer service and Maafa procession held June 18 at the Basilica of St. Louis, King of France (Old Cathedral).

The St. Louis archdiocese and its Office of Racial Harmony organized “Forgive Us Our Trespasses,” which included a prayer service featuring Archbishop Mitchell T. Rozanski and other local faith leaders at the Old Cathedral, followed by a Maafa procession to the south pond on the grounds of the St. Louis Gateway Arch.

Maafa, a Swahili word for “great disaster,” is a traditional procession to memorialize the lives of those lost during the Middle Passage, or transatlantic slave trade.

In reflecting on the inaugural event, Archbishop Rozanski said two words kept coming to his mind: truth and freedom.

“When we embrace the truth ... can every human being created truly live in freedom,” he said.

Reflecting on the past, as painful as it may be, is an important part in moving forward to change the future, understanding that every human being is created in the image of God and has a God-given dignity.

Each one of us “is given human dignity to live in freedom, to live in truth, to be able to bring that image of God into the world in such a way that our whole world is transformed,” he said.

Several speakers recalled stories of enslaved people, as well as historical sites in St. Louis related to the slave trade.

The gathering also included a formal acknowledgement of the Archdiocese of St. Louis’s past involvement with the institution of slavery. The archdiocese has been researching that history as part of a project called “Forgive Us Our Trespasses.”

Bishop William V. DuBourg (who at the time was Bishop of Louisiana and the Two Floridas, with his episcopal seat in St. Louis), Bishop Joseph Rosati and Archbishop Peter R. Kenrick enslaved people, as did an unknown number of clergy.

The Archives Office has discovered the names of at least 85 enslaved people, with more expected.

Danielle Harrison, director of mission and charism at Cor Jesu Academy in St. Louis, who emceed the event, told participants that the stories shared that day would be difficult to hear, but challenged everyone to keep their hearts open to where God might be calling them.

“We’re here to remember. We’re here to honor the sacrifice. But we are also here to understand where we fit in the story,” she said.

“Because that’s what keeps it alive. We are here to do hard work. But we even in our fear we are brave, to look at what was unlookable. To understand was not understandable. To grasp where is God calling us,” she said.

Among the stories shared was that of Peter, a young enslaved person who was sold by Bishop Rosati. In a financial ledger from 1830-39, Bishop Rosati recorded the sale of “my negro boy called Peter about 9 or 10 years old” to Vincentian Father John Bouiller for the sum of $150.

Jesuit Father Jeffrey Harrison with the Jesuits’ Slavery, History, Memory and Reconciliation Project, spoke about the Queen, Brown and Hawkins families, all of whom were enslaved by the Jesuits when the religious order was becoming established in St. Louis.

Among them was Peter Queen-Hawkins, the son of two slaves, Isaac Hawkins and Susan Queen, who came to Missouri with the Jesuits from White Marsh plantation in Maryland.

Mr. Queen-Hawkins remained with the Jesuits until he died around 1907, spending his entire life in service to the Jesuits.

Other speakers included Church historian Monsignor Michael Witt; Father Art Cavitt, executive director of the St. Charles Lwanga Center and pastor of St. Nicholas Parish in St. Louis; Rev. Anthony Riley, senior pastor of Central Baptist Church; Rev. Anthony Witherspoon of Washington Metropolitan AME; Nikki Williams-Sebastian, a graduate of Rosati-Kain High School and now an Atlanta-based genealogist; and Rev. Brandon Wilkes, co-pastor of Peoples Church STL and executive director of the St. Louis Reconciliation Network.

Father Peter Faimega, parochial administrator of St. Norbert Parish in Florissant, who gave a Scripture reading at the prayer service, said he sees his role as simply being part of the story, by giving honor to his ancestors and remembering those who were enslaved in St. Louis.

The native of Nigeria, who was ordained in 2017 for the Archdiocese of St. Louis and is starting a ministry for African Catholics in St. Louis, said, “We are part of building this nation. So I want to continue with the work, to do my little part in helping to promote the work here.”

Lauren Drummond Littrell, who attended the prayer service and procession with several members of her family, said it was God Who called her to start Love One Another Ministries following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014 and some negative experiences her son had at a local private Catholic high school.

The ministry, she said, focuses on promoting the Gospel message of Jesus Christ to love one another, and works with schools, churches and other organizations to have an active role in racial healing, restoration and reconciliation, through a program called The Unity Lab.

“The Lord put it on my heart to do something to promote healing, restoration and reconciliation in the Body of Christ,” she said. “We have a high incidence of suicide among young African Americans. They’re hurting. They’re feeling not seen and heard because of racism and so many other things. We need to do something to make sure that they’re hopeful about the future.”

In their footsteps

Here is a list of former slave trade locations in St. Louis:

  • Original slave pen: Located at Fourth and Locust streets; now the site of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Before the Civil War, Bernard Lynch owned the largest slave market in St. Louis. His operation included an office at 104 Locust St. and a holding pen for enslaved people at 5th and Myrtle, the present-day Broadway and Clark;
  • Lynch’s slave-holding pen: In 1859, Lynch opened a slave pen at 5th and Myrtle. It eventually became a storage building for the Meyer Brothers Drug Company and was demolished in 1963 to build Busch Stadium;
  • Lynch’s office: Located at 104 Locust St., now a part of the grounds of the Gateway Arch;
  • Old Courthouse: Slave auctions were held on the steps of the Old Courthouse;
  • Planter’s House Hotel: Now the site of the Hyatt Regency Hotel Downtown, this was a hotel where smaller travelling slave trade dealers operated;
  • Corbin Thompson’s Slave Market: Now the site of Kiener Plaza, Corbin Thompson had the second-largest slave market in St. Louis.

Mrs. Brinker is a reporter for the St. Louis Review and Catholic St. Louis, publications of the St. Louis archdiocese.

This article is republished with permission.