DePaul University Division of Mission and Ministry > Education > Vincentians & Slavery > History
Receipt dated September 14, 1822, documenting the purchase, by Rev. Joseph Rosati, C.M., of an enslaved woman for St. Mary of the Barren’s Seminary. St. Mary’s of the Barrens, Perryville, MO. Vincentian Archives, DePaul University, Special Collections and Archives.
List in French of the names and ages of enslaved persons held by the Vincentians in Missouri, as reported circa 1836 by Fr. John Timon to his superiors in Europe. Rev. John Timon Provincial Files, Vincentian Archives, DePaul University, Special Collections and Archives.
This detail from Aspasia LeCompte’s 1837 freedom suit against Bishop Joseph Rosati in the Circuit Court of St. Louis explains that the filing is “an action for false imprisonment” and charges that “Joseph Rosati held and still holds her in slavery, to the damages of the said Aspasia of the sum of $300…” Courtesy of the Missouri State Archives.
“Cash from Peter Byrne on acct. for five slaves.” This St. Vincent’s College ledger entry dated March 14, 1853 documents a partial payment of $1000 by layman Peter Byrne to the Vincentians for five enslaved persons. St. Vincent’s College, Cape Girardeau, MO. Vincentian Archives, DePaul University, Special Collections and Archives.
“Cash from Julianna in part payment for her freedom.” This St. Vincent’s College ledger entry dated May 19, 1853, documents a $50 payment to the College by Juliana Rodney, made as part of a self-purchase agreement she and her husband negotiated with the Trustees of the College. St. Vincent’s College, Cape Girardeau, MO. Vincentian Archives, DePaul University, Special Collections and Archives.
This image from the National Archives and Records Administration documents that Zeno (Fenwick) Byrne, formerly enslaved by the Vincentians, volunteered to serve as a soldier in the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War.
Vincentians began enslaving people of African descent almost as soon as they settled in Missouri. In 1815, the Bishop of Louisiana, Louis William DuBourg, recruited Fr. Felix De Andreis, a Vincentian from Rome, to found the Congregation of the Mission in the United States.
De Andreis came to the country in 1816 with a handful of others, among them Fr. Joseph Rosati; they arrived in Perryville, Missouri, in 1818, at which time DuBourg provided them with a number of enslaved persons. Rosati also began to purchase slaves shortly thereafter, increasing the number of enslaved people at St. Mary’s of the Barrens to 27 by 1830. By 1860, records show that Vincentians had owned, traded, and used the labor of at least fifty enslaved persons of African descent in the building and operations of a seminary, school, church, and other property. They also controlled the lives of dozens of other enslaved people whose labor they rented from neighboring enslavers, many of them parishioners.
The Vincentians sold enslaved people to fellow Catholics and relocated others to various religious sites in the South. For example, in 1853 Peter Byrne, a layman in Cape Girardeau, paid $2250 to the Vincentians for five people. One of them, Zeno (Fenwick) Byrne, went on to enroll as a soldier in the United States Colored Troops in the Civil War.
On the eve of the Civil War, Vincentians continued to hold in bondage 10 people in Cape Girardeau and 2 in Perryville. Research into and documentation of the identities and experiences of the enslaved persons who lived and labored at Vincentian sites is ongoing.
Archival, sacramental, and government records provide glimpses into the lives of some of these enslaved people and directly link them to priests who held them in bondage.
The 1840 Census and other Vincentian documents, for instance, show that Harry and Minty Nesbit and their daughter, Juliana were owned by St. Vincent’s College in Cape Girardeau. The Vincentians had moved them away from family and kin in Perryville to work at the newly-established college.
Vincentian records also reveal that many years later, Juliana and her husband, Hamlet Rodney, arranged to purchase the freedom of Juliana, their two daughters, and Minty Nesbit for $500. Records show that the Rodneys made numerous payments toward this price. Although evidence for the family’s complete emancipation has not yet been located, it is believed Juliana Rodney gained her freedom through self-purchase in 1858.
Over the antebellum period, the Vincentians reduced the number of people they held in slavery, but they did so mostly by selling those persons to white parishioners or other white Catholics, rather than through emancipation.
The Catholic Church in the United States did not oppose slavery during the antebellum era, but defended the racist hierarchies of slavery as productive of social order, while at the same time urging Catholic slaveholders to ensure that Catholic sacraments such as baptism and marriage were made available to enslaved people.
Though these facts were known among Vincentian scholars, the full scope and meaning of this history is only now being documented and broadly appraised.
The Aspasia LeCompte Room, in the John T. Richardson Library was formerly named for Bishop Joseph Rosati.
In addition to serving as the Bishop of St. Louis, Rosati was also the Provincial Superior of the Western Province of the Congregation of the Mission at St. Mary’s of the Barrens seminary.
Archival records held at DePaul University, the University of Notre Dame, and the Archdiocese of St. Louis show that Rosati and other Vincentian priests owned, rented, traded, and used the labor of enslaved persons of African descent in the building and operations of a seminary, school, church, and other property in Missouri from 1818 through the early 1860s.
In 2021, Rosati’s name was removed from the room and the Task Force to Address the Vincentian Relationship with Slavery was formed. In May 2023, the room was renamed to honor Aspasia LeCompte, one of many people held in bondage by Bishop Rosati and the Vincentians.
Aspasia LeCompte was born into slavery and baptized by the Catholic Church in 1804. She and her mother and siblings were held in bondage by multiple, and different, Catholic enslavers during the subsequent decades, including Bishop Joseph Rosati.
Some of what is known about LeCompte comes from an unusual source. Aspasia and members of her extended kin network successfully sued for their freedom.
Under a principle of Missouri law known as “once free always free,” enslaved people could sue for their freedom if they could prove that they had ever lived in a free state and were therefore being kept in bondage against their will in Missouri, a slave state.
Freedom suits were difficult to pursue and even harder to win. Of the approximately 300 enslaved people who sued, fewer than half were successful.
Aspasia LeCompte brought multiple suits against several of the people who held her in bondage, including Bishop Rosati. When Rosati became Bishop of St. Louis, he continued to own enslaved people who worked in his household, Aspasia LeCompte among them.
LeCompte won her liberty in 1839. She went on to support the successful efforts of several family members in their own freedom suits. By 1844, LeCompte and five of her family members had managed to obtain their freedom through their determined use of the courts and deep solidarity with one another, despite sustained resistance, trickery, and subterfuge at the hands of those who enslaved them.