RHODELIA, Kentucky – On a wintry January day at Old St. Therese Cemetery in rural Meade County, Kentucky, Janice Mulligan laid a simple wreath of magnolia leaves at the grave of Matilda Hurd, a woman who died as a slave and whose grandson is now a saint in the making.
Hurd, who died in 1836 at the age of 30, was enslaved on a farm owned by John Henry Manning. She was also the maternal grandmother of Father Augustus Tolton, born into slavery and the first recognized African-American priest ordained for the American Catholic Church.
Tolton was ordained on April 24, 1886 in Rome, died in 1897 in Chicago, and was on his way to sainthood. Pope Francis said in June 2019 that Tolton led a life of heroic virtue, giving him the title “Venerable.”
The next step is beatification, which requires the verification of a miracle attributed to the intercession of the candidate for sainthood. In general, a second miracle of this type is necessary for canonization.
As she stood over Hurd’s grave, “her story felt like part of my family’s story,” said Mulligan, associate director of the Office of Multicultural Ministry for the Archdiocese of Louisville, Kentucky. .
On that January day, Father J. Ronald Knott, a retired archdiocesan from Louisville, led a small group, including Mulligan, in reciting the Confiteor before the wreath laying.
The penitential prayer seemed appropriate at the time, especially the words “in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,” said Knott, who grew up in Rhodelia and attended St. Thérèse in her childhood.
Knott recently learned that Hurd was buried in the old Sainte-Therese cemetery, he said. He leads a project to convert the old St. Theresa School building into a community center.
He said he planned to use one of the hallways in the center as a museum where photographs and historical documents from the parish community would be displayed.
Searching for old photos and researching the parish’s more than 200-year-old history, Knott said ‘suddenly it became clear to me that part of our history’ is rooted in slavery . “I was shocked. I didn’t know there were slaves in the parish.
His research shows that there were about 50 families in Sainte-Thérèse who collectively enslaved about 200 people.
Knott is studying Saint Theresa’s baptismal records to find the names of slaves baptized at the parish, he said. “We have to say their names – Matilda, Maria, Augustus, Sicilia. We didn’t even know their names and it’s there in the baptismal certificates and in the cemetery.
Her research eventually uncovered the baptismal records of Hurd’s children – Charles, Anne, Sicilia, Sicilia Ellen and Martha Jane.
Martha Jane is Tolton’s mother, he told The Record, the archdiocesan newspaper of Louisville.
“The more I studied, the more I realized that this family was connected to Father Tolton,” Knott said.
Their names and the names of other enslaved people will be displayed on the Family Life Center’s history wall because they were also St. Therese parishioners, he said.
“As people walk down the hall seeing the names of the priests and the (nun) sisters, they will see the names of the slaves who made certain families successful here,” he said. “As far as the small parishes of the country go, Sainte-Thérèse was more advanced and better off,” and that was because of slave labor.
Knott said the parish still benefits from the labor of slaves who he says quarried the rocks used for the foundation and made the bricks from which the current Church of St. Theresa was built. The church was dedicated in 1861 by the Bishop of Louisville, Martin John Spalding.
Knott noted that he wasn’t interested in “shaming” anyone. Instead, he wants to celebrate the contribution of slaves to his childhood parish, learn and pass on the entire history of the parish – “not just white history” or a “sanitized version” of that history – to the young generation.
If they want to oppose “prejudice and bigotry,” they need to be aware of the parish’s history with slavery, Knott said.
Mulligan agrees that the contributions of slaves to the parishes of the Archdiocese of Louisville should be recognized.
“The recognition of her (Matilda) name, especially in the context of her grandson becoming one of the first African-American Saints in the United States…there is a legacy and a history there, rich and that deserve to be told,” she said. “The job of this office is to promote and spread that African American heritage, whether in the 1800s or now.”
“His story and others like it add a fuller thread and fuller context to the presence and contributions of African Americans to this American church,” she said. “He can certainly be better promoted and appreciated.”
Part of Hurd’s story takes place at the Rhodelia farm owned by Manning and his wife, Ann Gough, who were members of St. Theresa’s Church.
Hurd was married to Augustus Chisley, another Manning Farm slave, said Emilie Leumas, an archivist who serves on the historical commission for Tolton’s Holiness cause. Hurd and Chisley had six children.
In 1835, when Manning died, he bequeathed all of his possessions – about 1,200 acres of land, personal items such as money, his watch, his Bible and his 17 slaves to his children and grandchildren including the parents were deceased, Leumas said.
Manning’s details will show that Hurd and Chisley and their children were separated. Their oldest children, Martha Jane, 11, and Charles, 6, were left to Manning’s granddaughter, Anne Sevilla Manning.
Leumas noted that by the time the will was read, Anne Sevilla Manning and her family had moved to Ralls County, Missouri. At some point after the reading of the will, Charles and Martha Jane – Tolton’s mother – were moved to Missouri to live with their new owner.
“How heartbreaking to have your two oldest children taken to Missouri,” Leumas said in a recent interview.
When Anne Sevilla Manning married Stephen Elliott in 1839, she would have brought Charles and Martha Jane into her marriage as part of her dowry, Leumas said.
More than a decade later, Martha Jane, now a mother of three young children, including 7-year-old Tolton, escaped slavery and fled to Quincy, Illinois, where Tolton grew up and trained in the Catholic faith.
Hurd’s death in 1836 came a year after Manning’s will was read. She is buried a few meters from a large wooden cross that marks the spot where the old church once stood, a log cabin structure.
The parish began as a log cabin on the banks of the Ohio River, an area known as Flint Island in 1818. In 1826, a second log cabin was built on what is now the former grounds of the graveyard.
Knott noted that Hurd is buried among the white parishioners of St. Theresa, possibly because she was baptized. A cemetery located in a wooded area near a highway about two miles from the parish was also used to bury slaves belonging to the parishioners of Sainte-Thérèse.
These slaves, he says, may not have been baptized. He leads a project to find all the tombstones in this cemetery.
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Thomas is an editor at The Record, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Louisville.