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A 19th-century Catholic bishop whose name adorns a building at the University of St. Thomas was a slave owner who bought a woman named Marie Louise for $800 while living in Mobile, Ala., according to new historical research.

Bishop Mathias Loras of Dubuque, Iowa, never set foot on the St. Thomas campus in St. Paul — the school was founded 27 years after he died in 1858. But his diocese included present-day Minnesota from 1837 until 1850, when the Diocese of St. Paul was created.

And since 1913, his name has lived on at Loras Hall, a five-story brick structure on the former St. Paul Seminary campus built as a dormitory in 1894 and designed by Cass Gilbert.

The revelation of Loras’ slave ownership won’t result in immediate change, said St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan. It would be easy to simply erase the building’s name, she said, but she wants to see a more comprehensive discussion.

“We want to understand it better,” said Sullivan. “This probably won’t be the last time that we may be called upon to consider whether we want to rename something on our campus. … Perhaps it’s time to step back and think about what principles we would like to employ in considering these decisions.”

Sullivan has named a committee of students, faculty, staffers, alumni and trustees to begin that dialogue in the coming weeks. It will be led by Prof. Gregory Sisk, a law professor who is co-director of the Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law and Public Policy, and history Prof. Yohuru Williams, director of St. Thomas’ Racial Justice Initiative.

Said Sullivan: “In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, the whole country is really focusing on the legacy of dehumanizing injustice that persists in our country that goes back to the age of slavery. So I think as a country, certainly as a university, as a community, we are interrogating that history, the history of slavery and all of that injustice that has persisted since that time … and what our rights and responsibilities are in dismantling it.”

Before the controversy there was talk on campus about tearing down Loras Hall and replacing it with a new STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) complex, though St. Thomas officials said nothing has been decided yet.

Sullivan said she learned of the new research earlier this month after media reports of the controversy at Loras College in Dubuque, a small Catholic liberal arts school founded by Loras in 1839.

A researcher there made the discovery this summer while poring through Loras’ personal papers and business ledgers. The revelations were confirmed in a seven-page document by Loras College history Prof. Kristin Anderson-Bricker.

“The evidence establishes that, like his fellow Catholics, Bishop Loras was a willing, consistent, and knowing participant in the institution of slavery,” according to Anderson-Bricker.

Loras College administrators removed a statue of the bishop from campus on Sept. 8, setting off a heated debate not unlike the ones surrounding Confederate statues in the South. Some decried the college’s move as an attempt to erase history, while others on social media supported the school’s decision. The school has also named a scholarship for Marie Louise.

Loras, who was born and educated in France, emigrated as a young priest to Mobile in 1829. He purchased Marie Louise in 1836, shortly before he moved to Dubuque as the first bishop of the frontier diocese that included what later became Minnesota.

Marie Louise remained behind in Mobile with her husband, Francis, while Loras, following common practice at the time, leased her out to other slave owners and expected to receive the bulk of her pay, $8 to $10 per month. He hired a local agent to enforce the arrangement, but the historical record shows that Marie Louise often refused to send her pay north, wrote Anderson-Bricker.

She may have planned to use the money to buy her freedom, as in one ledger entry Loras wrote: “Liberty promised if she pays $250.” But Marie Louise was often jailed for keeping her pay, and Loras eventually sold her to another family.

Anderson-Bricker wrote that slave ownership was widespread in the Catholic Church before the 19th century. The church wasn’t a fervent supporter of emancipation but preferred a more gradual approach, she said.

Williams, one of the two St. Thomas professors named to lead the school’s conversation about Loras Hall, said “it just makes sense” for a community to occasionally revisit what it names things after.

“We want it to be a thoughtful process, something that builds community,” he said.

Williams said the new research on Loras wasn’t surprising.

“But I also think it’s an important moment for us to take inventory,” he said, “and have larger conversations about what it means when we name something after someone. Just because we put a monument up, does that mean that’s for all time?”

Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329