Jonathan Monnet got an unexpected email Thanksgiving week of last year, suddenly filling in the dots of his family's fragmented past.
Sister Maureen Chicoine, of the Society of the Sacred Heart, told Monnet about her research into the lives of enslaved black men and women who lived, worked and raised families at the order's plantation and school in Grand Coteau.
Monnet learned Chicoine had spent considerable time combing through U.S. Census data and whatever records she could find in the church's archives to track down descendants of those slaves, and she had solid evidence that he might be one of them.
She was right.
"My grandmother used to always mention to me how her mom and grandmother were from Sacred Heart," said Monnet, an Opelousas native who now lives in New Orleans. "But I never put it together until Maureen contacted me."
Chicoine had a similar conversation around the Christmas holiday with Dianna Forney, a retiree who lives in Dallas but had familial ties to Louisiana. A relative trying to put together her family tree had stumbled across Chicoine's research on Ancestry.com and linked the nun to Forney.
"A lot of my family is gone, so I have no one to talk to and get information," Forney said. "I don't know much about my mother's side of the family."
For the Society of the Sacred Heart, a 200-year-old Roman Catholic religious congregation for women, to dig into its involvement in slavery is part of a growing trend, with institutions examining how they benefited from the ownership of human beings.
Another Catholic institution, Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., made national news in 2016 when it disclosed research showing the Jesuit priests who ran the college in 1838 sold 272 slaves to plantations in Louisiana to keep the school from closing.
Chicoine's research into those enslaved by the Society of the Sacred Heart began in 2016 with the formation of a Committee on Slavery, Accountability and Reconciliation. The committee was tasked with researching and publicly sharing the sisterhood's participation in slavery, while also suggesting reflection and learning programs to assist in combating ongoing racist attitudes and behaviors, and working with the network of 24 schools throughout the country and parts of Canada.
Sister Lyn Osiek, chairwoman of the committee, said Chicoine is one of several researchers on the six-member committee. The society's slaveholding history is linked to its schools in Missouri and Louisiana, she said.
So far, Osiek said, Chicoine has contacted nine descendants connected to the convent's school in Grand Coteau, but she estimates the number of living descendants of the original couples who worked at the school since its founding in 1821 at somewhere between 1,500 and 4,000 people.
"Just recently at a bishops meeting there was a bishop who really put the issue right up front about the church and racism and asked, 'Why aren't we doing more?' " Osiek said. "I certainly think and hope that the church will lead in this regard and be a major player in the whole process."
"What we're hoping for is some kind of understanding and reconciliation," she added. "The asking of forgiveness. And reconciliation so we can go forward in peace."
If that's the goal, Tulane law professor Robert St. Martin Westley said the Society of the Sacred Heart can't just call descendants and tell them about their ancestors. The religious sisterhood must heavily involve the descendants in the conversation and outreach efforts spawned by their research and not just tell them how the church will try to remedy the problem, he said.
"Part of the problem we've had historically is that it's usually the perpetrator who decides the parameters of the reparatory justice," said Westley. "After we do it to you, then we're going to tell you what to do to fix it. And that's not good."
Westley served as part of a legal team representing the interests of a group of Georgetown slave descendants who called themselves the Legacy of GU272 Alliance. The group's members were some of the biggest critics of Georgetown University's reconciliation efforts that have played out since the announcement of the 1838 sale. They have accused the university of excluding them from the decision-making process that led up to the school's initiatives.
Another descendants group, the GU272 Descendants Association, was a little less critical of the university's efforts, but recently said they're shifting their focus, choosing instead to address the ramifications of the 1838 sale with the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, leadership instead.
"It's important to understand that it was not Georgetown who enslaved our ancestors, it was the Jesuits. It is the Jesuits who really have to reconcile the sale," the association's executive director, Karran Harper-Royal, said in an email. "We know that Georgetown has put forth various recommendations for making amends, but we want to see what the Jesuits will do to mitigate the sale of our ancestors."
Officials with the Jesuit Conference of the U.S. declined an invitation from The Advocate to respond.
In a statement on behalf of Georgetown University, spokeswoman Meghan Dubyak reiterated the school's efforts since 2015 of trying to address its historical relationship with slavery. They began with a formal apology to the descendants, renaming of two buildings on campus — one for Issac Hawkins, the first person named in the 1838 sale — and offering legacy status for admissions consideration to descendants.
"Following many conversations and dialogue with members of the descendant community, the university and the Jesuits have reached out to members of the descendant community to propose a framework for long-term dialogue, partnership and collaboration," Dubyak said in an emailed statement.
"Georgetown and the Jesuits are committed to working with descendants in a process that recognizes the terrible legacy of slavery and promotes racial justice in southern Louisiana, southern Maryland and throughout the nation. We believe that this kind of collaborative approach is the best path toward reconciliation and responding to the challenges of racial injustice today."
Georgetown University plans a series of in-person meetings in Louisiana and other parts of the country with descendants of the 272 slaves that…
Osiek said the Society of the Sacred Heart is still in the process of trying to figure out what would be appropriate. That process includes talking with as many descendants as possible to find out what they're comfortable with.
"They have been excited and wanted to meet each other and have some kind of ritual of forgiveness and reconciliation," she said. "It takes a lot of time and a lot of reflection to really do it well."
Both Monnet and Forney said they are focused on getting as much information as they can about their ancestors, not necessarily on a reconciliation process.
Before Chicoine's phone call, all Forney knew about her mother's side of the family was that her grandfather's name was Emile Hawkins, he was one of 22 kids of a couple who lived in Louisiana and that he was Catholic. It took only one phone conversation with Chicoine for Forney to realize the Emile Hawkins who showed up in some of the slaveholding records connected to the Convent of the Sacred Heart was likely her maternal grandfather.
Monnet said he was most moved by a particular document Chicoine shared with him. The nun uncovered an 1865 agreement between the convent and his great-grandfather, Ben Hawkins, who decided to stay and work at the school and plantation after the Civil War ended.
Chicoine's research so far shows Ben Hawkins was one of five children (four boys and a girl) of married couple Frank Hawkins and Jane "Jenny" Eaglin.
Frank Hawkins was purchased by the convent in 1822 from a family in Maryland and brought to Grand Coteau. His wife was transported to Louisiana around 1827. The Hawkins boys all married and began their own families on the plantation. While the surname Hawkins also comes up with the Georgetown sale, Chicoine's research has yet to make a solid connection to the Hawkins family sold by the university.
Chicoine's research also posits that some of the slaves connected to the Grand Coteau property were transplanted there when new women entered the Society of the Sacred Heart, bringing their slaves with them.
By 1860, there were possibly 35 to 40 slaves living at the property, including 25 to 30 people who were extended family members of Frank Hawkins and Jenny Eaglin.
"All of this helps me understand my grandmother more and the world she was from," Monnet said. "I don't see any kind of (reparations) being practical. It's so many ancestors. My thing was just getting the knowledge."