My Church Was Part of the Slave Trade. This Has Not Shaken My Faith.

For more than a century, Catholic priests in Maryland held Black people in bondage. They were among the largest slaveholders in the state, and they prayed for the souls of the people they held captive even as they enslaved and sold their bodies.

So after the Civil War, the emancipated Black families that had been torn apart in sales organized by the clergymen were confronted with a choice: Should they remain in the church that had betrayed them?

Over the past seven years, I’ve pieced together the harrowing origin story of the American Catholic Church, which relied on slave labor and slave sales to sustain itself and to help finance its expansion. I am a professor and a journalist who writes about slavery and its legacies. I am also a Black woman and a practicing Catholic. As I’ve considered the choices those families faced in 1864, I have found myself pondering my faith and my church and my own place in it.

I stumbled across this story in 2016 when I got a tip about the prominent Jesuit priests who sold 272 people to raise money to save the college we now know as Georgetown University, the nation’s first Catholic institution of higher learning. Witnesses described the terrors of enslavement: children torn from their parents, brothers from their sisters and desperate people forced to board slave ships that sailed to Louisiana. It was one of the largest documented slave sales of the time, and it shattered entire families.

I was astounded. Catholic priests had bought and sold human beings? Why didn’t I know?

The history of Catholic slaveholding, it turned out, was familiar to historians of slavery. I didn’t know because enslaved people have been largely left out of the origin story traditionally told about the emergence of Catholicism in the United States.

In the archives, I found records that documented the whipping of pregnant women, children sold without their parents, a girl swapped for a horse. I read letters written by priests in the 1820s who acknowledged that families were housed in dilapidated quarters that were “almost universally unfit for human beings.’’

For their part, Black people resisted their enslavement and responded in different ways to the spiritual demands of the priests, who often required them to attend Mass and to participate in the sacraments. Some refused to accept the religion. Others, noting similarities between their own West African religious traditions and those of the Catholic faith, embraced a synthesis. For some, Catholicism struck a deep chord, offering solace and community.

Whether they embraced the faith or joined for more pragmatic reasons, the enslaved soon learned that some priests would impose harsh penalties on those who flouted Catholicism’s moral code. When one priest discovered that enslaved parents on his plantation had engaged in marital infidelity, he sold their children as punishment.

I read these records during the week and took my place in the pews of my church on the weekends, struggling to absorb what I was learning amid the flickering candles and the rituals that I love.

I grew up on Staten Island, where my mother and her family ended up after emigrating from the Bahamas in the 1950s and where their lives intersected with one of the city’s leading Catholic figures. For a time, they lived on a farm in Staten Island run by Dorothy Day, who is now a candidate for sainthood.

Ms. Day, who became the godmother of one of my uncles, wrote about my family in her newspaper, The Catholic Worker. She described watching children singing calypso songs and also her sorrow at my grandfather’s passing. And when one of my mother’s brothers drowned at the age of 6, she gathered my mother and her siblings alongside his grave to pray the rosary.

“The breeze spoke to us of God’s Goodness and beauty,” wrote Ms. Day, describing that day in 1953, “and there was no sadness there but peace.”

The church that we knew was a Northern church with Irish and Italian parishioners and some Black families. It wasn’t until I was a correspondent for The New York Times and a mother of two children, both baptized into the faith, that I learned about the role that Black people had played.

Catholic priests, who relied on slavery, did more than save Georgetown. They built the nation’s first Catholic college, the first archdiocese and the first Catholic cathedral and helped establish two of the earliest Catholic monasteries. Even the clergymen who established the first Catholic seminary relied on enslaved laborers. The inherent contradictions of praying for the souls of people held in captivity left few in leadership troubled.

“The sale of a few unnecessary Negroes” would help cover some expenses, the nation’s first Catholic bishop, John Carroll, wrote in 1805.

Some priests protested. Patrick Smyth criticized Carroll and his fellow clergymen for their slaveholding in 1788. Joseph Carbery objected to the 1838 sale and John Baptist Purcell, the archbishop of Cincinnati, condemned “the sin of … holding millions of human beings in physical and spiritual bondage.”

They were lonely voices. Most powerful leaders of the church supported slavery until the Union victory in the Civil War made its demise a foregone conclusion.

And so we come to 1865.

Some priests understood the stakes at hand. Archbishop Martin Spalding of Baltimore called for the creation of a new position for a bishop focused on Black Catholics after the Civil War.

“It is a golden opportunity for reaping a harvest of souls, which neglected may not return,” Spalding wrote.

But his fellow bishops dismissed the idea. Instead, they revealed their racial biases, describing what they called the “peculiar dispositions and habits” of Black people and making it clear that they remained doubtful about the wisdom of the “sudden liberation of so large a multitude.”

This disdain for Black parishioners bubbled up in parishes, too, where Black and white children were often separated for catechism, First Communion and church festivities.

The church paid a price for its racism; nearly 20,000 African Americans in New Orleans alone are believed to have left in the two decades after the Civil War.

But many of the families I’ve researched chose a different path.

Why stay? To them, the church was bigger than the sinful white men within it. Those priests had the power to forcibly enslave people, but they did not control God, or his Son, or the Holy Spirit. The church — the true, universal church depicted in Scripture — did not belong to those men. That church — with the prayers, hymns and rituals of the faithful that had sustained these families for generations — belonged to everyone, including the throngs of newly emancipated Black Catholics.

Members of the Mahoney family, which was torn apart in that 1838 sale, passed their devotion from one generation to the next. They joined parishes, baptized their children and became lay leaders and religious leaders who worked to reshape the church by building institutions that would be more reflective of and responsive to Black Catholics. At least two members of the family became nuns who ran schools for Black children into the 20th century.

Many Mahoney descendants remain Catholic to this day. They have joined other descendants to press Georgetown and the Jesuits to make amends, prodding the institutions to break new ground in the movement for reparations and reconciliation in America.

So when people ask me whether my research has shaken my faith, I shake my head. I am inspired by the families who pressed the church to be true to its teachings. Their history is one of struggle and resistance, family and faith. Unearthing their stories has deepened my connection to Catholicism and transformed my understanding of my own church.