DePaul University Division of Mission and Ministry > Education > Vincentians & Slavery > History

Vincentians and Slavery: History

​​​​​

​​
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.

Archival Sources

  • Aspasia a woman of color v. Joseph Rosati, March Term, 1837. Circuit Course Case Files, Case Number 39, Office of the Circuit Clerk, St. Louis. Missouri State Archives, St. Louis.
  • Juliana Rodney Self-Purchase Payment, May 19, 1853. St. Vincent’s College, Cape Girardeau, MO. Box 43, Folder 2: General Accounts (Cape 65), 1851-1859. Vincentian Archives, DePaul University, Special Collections and Archives.
  • Juliana Rodney Self-Purchase Agreement, May 19, 1853. St. Vincent’s College, Cape Girardeau, MO. Box 2, Folder 1: Board of Trustees Minutes, Act of Incorporation (1843), 1844-1881.Vincentian Archives, DePaul University, Special Collections and Archives.
  • Peter Byrne Purchase of Five Enslaved Persons from St. Vincent’s College, March 14, 1853. St. Vincent’s College, Cape Girardeau, MO. Box 43, Folder 2: General Accounts (Cape 65), 1851-1859. Vincentian Archives, DePaul University, Special Collections and Archives.
  • Peter Byrne Offer to Purchase Enslaved Persons, February 5, 1853. St. Vincent’s College, Cape Girardeau, MO. Box 2, Folder 1: Board of Trustees Minutes, Act of Incorporation (1843), 1844-1881. Vincentian Archives, DePaul University, Special Collections and Archives.
  • Receipt for Purchase of Enslaved Woman, 1822. St. Mary’s of the Barrens, Perryville, MO, Box 88, Folder 1: Bills and Receipts—Enslaved Persons, 1821-1831. Vincentian Archives, DePaul University, Special Collections and Archives.
  • Report on Seminary Property Includes List of Enslaved Persons, circa 1836. Rev. John Timon Provincial Files, Box 1, Folder 1. Vincentian Archives, DePaul University, Special Collections and Archives.
  • Zeno (Fenwick) Byrne Enrollment Record, 1863. Recruitment Lists of Volunteers for the United States Colored Troops for Missouri, 1863-1865. Roll 2, Frame 17, M1894, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington DC.

Selected Published Sources                   

  • Farrelly, Maura Jane. “American Slavery, American Freedom, American Catholicism.” Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 10, no. 1 (Winter 2012): 69-100.
  • Konig, David Thomas. “The Long Road to Dred Scott: Personhood and the Rule of Law in the Trial Court Records of St. Louis Slave Freedom Suits.” UMKC Law Review 75, no. 1 (Fall 2006): 53-80.
  • Poole, Stafford, and Douglas Slawson. Church and Slave in Perry County, Missouri, 1818-1865. Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 1986.
  • Rybolt, John E., ed. The American Vincentians: A Popular History of the Congregation of the Mission in the United States, 1815-1987. Brooklyn, N. Y.: New City Press, 1988.
  • Rybolt, John E., “Vincentian Seminaries in Louisiana,” Vincentian Heritage 15, no. 2 (1994): 163-175.
  • Schmidt, Kelly. “Slavery and the Shaping of Catholic Missouri, 1810-1850,” Missouri Historical Review 116, no. 3 (April 2022): 173-211.
  • Shrum, Edison E. and Margaret Mates. The Slaves and Slave Owners of Cape Girardeau County. Scott City, Mo.: E.E. Shrum, c. 1986. DePaul University, Special Collections and Archives.
  • Twitty, Anne.” Before Dred Scott: Slavery and Legal Culture in the American Confluence, 1787-1857. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.