“The Sulpicians & Slavery,”

A Lecture by Thomas R. Ulshafer, PSS

Fr. Thomas R. Ulshafer, PSS, shared the results of his research into the intertwined history of the Sulpicians and slavery in the early United States at an afternoon of lecture and discussion held Saturday, October 12, 2019.

The presentation took place in the St. Mary’s Seminary Chapel, built in 1808 on the site of the first Roman Catholic Seminary founded in the United States. Fr. Ulshafer, a former Provincial Superior of the U.S. Province, provided a thorough, academic examination of the Sulpicians’ use of enslaved labor in the early years in both Baltimore and in

Emmitsburg. He presented his research before the largest public audience in many years at the historic Upper Chapel on Paca Street in Baltimore.

St. Mary’s on Paca Street, which encompasses both the 1808 Chapel and the 1808 Mother Seton House, was an appropriate forum to bring forth the dichotomy of thinking regarding people of color. The Chapelle Basse, or Lower Chapel, of the Seminary Chapel was a gathering place for the local community—which in the late 1700s included many Haitian refugees. Because it was against the law for people of color to congregate in the slave state of Maryland, this chapel became a unique space of freedom and progressive thinking on education in Baltimore. It was also into the Chapelle Basse that Mary Elizabeth Lange, an educated woman of color from the Caribbean, was welcomed in the 1820s. This was where she professed her vows, and where she founded the Oblate  Sisters of Providence in 1829, thus creating the first religious order for women of color in the world.

Fr. Ulshafer brought the audience into the early days of the French Sulpicians— themselves fleeing the turmoil and slaughter of the French Revolution. He relied on sources, including the meticulously kept journal of Fr. Jean-Marie Tessier. (Fr. Tessier was the second Sulpician Provincial Superior, serving from 1810 to 1829). Fr. Ulshafer also cited the use of enslaved labor by Fr. Ambrose Maréchal, another Sulpician who later became the third Archbishop of Baltimore.

“It may seem odd or even hypocritical, the fact that these early Sulpicians took a leadership role in ministering to and educating blacks, including the enslaved, while accepting or tolerating the seemingly incompatible view of domestic slavery,” Fr. Ulshafer summarized.

Sulpicians and Slavery: An Intertwined History

In 1791, at the invitation of Bishop John Carroll, members of the Priests of St. Sulpice (known as the Sulpicians) arrived in Baltimore from Paris, France, to establish the first Roman Catholic Seminary in the young United States. They were also fleeing the turmoil and persecution of their Society brought about by the French Revolution. They began ministering to the black Catholic community (principally Haitian refugees), and made the seminary’s Chapelle Basse (Lower Chapel) a space for these refugees to gather for worship. At the same time, the Sulpicians were part of the post-colonial culture and used enslaved labor within the seminary, both as domestic workers and field hands.

Fr. Thomas Ulshafer, PSS, has extensively researched the Sulpicians’ historical connection to slavery. He presented the implications of this connection for the Sulpicians’ early survival and success in the United States.

“Slavery and the Early Sulpician Community in Maryland,” published this year in the U.S. Catholic Historian, by Thomas R. Ulshafer, PSS, set out to “investigate the Sulpicians’ historical connections to slavery and reflect on its implications for the community, arguing that the Sulpicians’ early survival and success in the U.S. depended significantly on the labor of enslaved men, women, and children.”

Ulshafer, T.R., P.S.S. (2019). Slavery and the Early Sulpician Community in Maryland. U.S. Catholic Historian 37(2), 1-21. doi:10.1353/cht.2019.0013.