“We wanted to give recognition to those who are buried among us, and we wanted to express appreciation for the important contribution that they made to life here at Nazareth,” said Sister Theresa Knabel, who led efforts to research the slaves’ history.
“It is sad that (slavery) seemed to be an acceptable standard of the day,” Knabel said. “It was an economic necessity, which does not excuse it, but that’s the reality. Like anything in our history, we’re not 100 percent proud of anything.”
The slaves enabled the order to start and operate a school for girls in the order’s early years. “We could not have done it without them,” Knabel said.
The ceremony is particularly poignant in the Nelson County community, where many Catholics, black and white, trace their roots to pre-Civil War days.
“It’s going to at least give some kind of closure,” said Carrie Stivers, a member of nearby St. Monica Church who said her ancestors included slaves who worked for the order. “It’s done in a very dignified way.”
Until now, the only marker to the slaves has been a tombstone nestled in relative obscurity among rows of similar markers at the order’s cemetery.
Its weathered lettering pays tribute to a William Butler, his wife and “other faithful servants” of the order.
The decades-old grave is believed to hold the remains of more than 20 former slaves, relocated from another cemetery, Knabel said.
Knabel added that the order’s history with African Americans “does not end with emancipation.”
For many decades, the sisters taught black students in several schools in Kentucky and elsewhere.
Sisters walked with and tended the wounds of civil-rights marchers in Selma, Ala., and elsewhere in the 1960s.
And the sisters are currently targeting modern-day slavery, members said, such as raising awareness of human trafficking in Kentucky.
Their members in India help female victims of the sex trade gain a better education, “helping them to get out of that situation, helping them to have opportunities,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth Miller, the order’s president.
The order, founded in 1812 in Kentucky by Mother Catherine Spalding, has 637 members in five nations, most of them in the U.S. and India.
The bronze relief depicts an intergenerational family of slaves, ranging from the elderly to a babe in arms, in the pioneer setting of the early days of Nazareth.
Hamilton — whose works include one of President Abraham Lincoln at Waterfront Park in Louisville — said the sisters wanted a depiction of their former slaves that would be both historically accurate and reflect the slaves’ dignity.
“I was very happy to do that for them,” he said.
Hamilton said a common theme of his works, on display around the country, has been to raise awareness of the role of African Americans in history.
They include statues to black Civil War soldiers in Washington, D.C., to the leader of the Amistad slave rebellion in New Haven, Conn., and to the slave and explorer York of the Lewis and Clark expedition in Louisville.
“I have learned my history through my art,” Hamilton said, and he hopes others do, too.
The slave memorial is the latest of several steps taken by nuns and other religious groups to atone for slavery.
Members and leaders of virtually all major religious groups in Kentucky owned slaves until the practice was abolished in 1865 by the 13th Amendment. Baptist, Presbyterian and Methodist denominations split over slavery, and in recent years several Protestant denominations issued statements apologizing for their role in the practice.
In 2000, the Sisters of Loretto dedicated a memorial to their former slaves at their motherhouse in neighboring Marion County.
The sisters of Loretto and Charity joined with the Dominicans of St. Catharine, Ky., (now part of the Dominican Sisters of Peace) later in 2000 to hold a service to apologize for their slave-holding histories.
All three orders, whose members are mostly white, were founded in the early 1800s in a region that became known as the “Catholic Holy Land” for its pioneering role as the nation’s first inland diocese.
The Sisters of Charity’s slaves mainly were brought to the area by women as they entered the order.
Knabel researched their lives by looking through old baptismal records, handwritten letters by sisters and other files.
The monument includes inscriptions of the names of 28 slaves in the order’s records, some of them only known by first names such as Seraphine, Solomon or Winny.
Knabel said there may have been other slaves, but these were the only ones with names on record.
The archives, she said, revealed details both poignant and tragic. One male slave became an acolyte, which meant he would have been educated in Latin to help at Mass. Some slave women died in childbirth.
The memorial includes the words of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew: “Come to me all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”
Knabel said the slaves were part of the order’s family, and “once part of the family, I guess you’re always part of the family.”