From the archives – exploring slave baptismal records, part II

By Mary Woodward
JACKSON – In last week’s article on the sacramental records of slaves recorded in the early days of our diocese, we talked about the beautiful handwriting that documented the sin of slavery. We talked about the records reflecting slaves with only a first name having been stripped of their ancestral names and given European names.
This week we will look at some actual records and see the different levels and phraseology of defining the particular condition of that person and his or her “family.”
It is important to note that baptism is essential to the Catholic Church. Normally, in our Catholic baptismal rite parents freely present their child to the church for baptism. They choose Godparents for their child and gather with the priest or deacon around the font.
The gathered community of parents and Godparents in these records also had another set of individuals present – owners or overseers on behalf of the owner. Several of these rites occurred in the homes of the owners.
The thought of who presented the child or who asked for the baptism in these records can spark some interesting dialogue. Did the parent(s) ask for the baptism or did they even have a choice? Did the owner (who also might have been one of the parents) ask for it out of some sense of obligation to their ingrained Catholic theology to baptize so that the child if it died prior to baptism did not end up in “limbo?” Did the priest ask for this out of a dedication to his ministry in the salvation of souls?
What we do know is that as Catholics, we have a very strong commitment to baptism. This beautiful sacrament in which we die to sin and are reborn into the life of Christ is the foundation of our sacramental life in the church.
Therefore, it does on one level demonstrate a recognition that the one to be baptized has a soul and that baptism is conferred to remove that stain of original sin and initiate him/her into life in Christ. Even though the individual was considered property, there was still a recognition of his or her inherent worth and humanity and the need for the sacrament to be conferred.
And yet I still wonder what might have gone through the mind of the person meticulously recording these records in standard format where the word slave and the color of the skin were included as an identifying factor. Again, remember that, sadly, slavery at this time was a cultural and legal institution. Many Catholics owned slaves.

JACKSON – Baptismal slave records document the sin of slavery, seen above in a record from July, 24, 1854. Diocese Archivist, Mary Woodward is presenting a series in Mississippi Catholic for reflection from the diocese archives to further understand the dynamic tension between faith and culture during the time of slavery in Mississippi. (Photo by Mary Woodward)

So, as you read through these records think about the beauty of the handwriting (example provided) and the desire to have a person initiated into Christ and the church through baptism. But on the other hand contemplate the immense gravity and evil of the phrase “slave of.”
I am going to start with a record from Spanish Colonial times. These are written in Spanish. The parents, Chere (father) and Genoveve (mother) of the girl are the same – both are slaves. What is interesting is Chere is a “slave of” Don Juan Rodriguez and Genoveva is “slave of” Madame Forman.
On the day of February 5, 1797, I, Don Francisco Lennan, priest of the Parish of the Savior in the city of Natchez, baptized and placed the holy oils on a girl of the color brown who was born on January 8, 1794, daughter of Chere, mulatto slave of Don Juan Rodriguez, and Genoveva, slave of Madame Forman; having conferred the sacred rites and prayers on this girl given the name Sara; Godparents were Simon de Arze and Maria Gertrude to whom I instructed on their spiritual kinship and have signed this: Francisco Lennan
It turns out that Madame Forman brought four to be baptized that day – two (Sara and Maria) from Chere and Genoveva; one named Thomasa described as a brown girl and daughter of Thomas and Elizabeth, both slaves of Madame Forman; and another Sara described as black and the daughter of Peter, slave of Madame Forman, and Judith, slave of Madame Paten.
The following record is from 1820 in Natchez and was written in English:
The underwritten testifies to have baptized in the Roman Catholic Church in the City of Natchez on the 26th of March 1820 a negro girl belonging to Gabriel Gireaudeau to whom the name Sophy was given; she was old seven years and had for Godfather Martial Pomet and for Godmother Virginia Gireaudeau.
Antoine Blanc, rector
We will have an article about the Gireaudeau family next edition. Antoine Blanc went on to become the first Archbishop of New Orleans.
From 1864, we have the following entry written by Bishop William Henry Elder, Bishop of the diocese from 1857 – 1880. This record reflects the pastoral care of the sick and again the foundational theology of baptism in that these individuals were in danger of death and the Bishop wanted to make sure they had received baptism. We will explore Bishop Elder’s time in a future article as well.
April 1 – At the smallpox hospital near Natchez, I baptized privately without ceremonies for in danger of death the following colored persons:
Joe aged 40 years
John Carter of [Peggy]
Henry Harrison of [Ocilia] – 56 years conditionally
The last two records shared are from the sacramental register of then Immaculate Conception Parish (now Sacred Heart) in Sulphur Springs (Camden). In these records a slave is denoted with a blank line after the first name is given.
The first record details an infant baptism that defines the infant as “servant.” This four-month-old baby was already destined for servitude. Since the Godmother is not given a last name, we can deduce she too was a slave.
The second example lists 15 slave children belonging to a Colonel Llyod of Maryland. They are listed in one record but they each are given a number in the register by listing them as 25-39 in the margin of the book.
In the year eighteen hundred and fifty four on the fourth day of June, Rev. C. Courjault baptized an infant named Elizabeth, born in February, same year, servant of Cornelius O’Leary of Madison County, Mississippi, Godmother Becky.
J.M. Guillou
Col. Lloyd
In the year eighteen hundred and fifty four, on the twenty fourth day of July, Rec. C. Courjault baptized the following children, Servants of Col. Lloyd of Maryland, on his plantation under the care of John Hargan Esq.
Bernard – John – Meletiana Mary – Louisa – Henry – Noah – Amos William – John Marion – William – Edward – Amalh – Alice – Eliza Ann – Sally Ann – Louisa Ann. John Hargan, Esq., stood Godfather for all the above.
J.M. Guillou
Our hope in the diocesan archives is to one day have the resources to digitize these records and make them accessible online for researchers to further discover and understand the dynamic tension between faith and culture during the time of slavery in Mississippi. Our archives are a gateway to that understanding and we are committed to broadening opportunities for study and open dialogue about this tension. We hope you will be able to reflect more on this topic and prayerfully seek opportunities to discuss this with others in a spirit of solid openness.
To be continued …

(Mary Woodward is Chancellor and Archivist for the Diocese of Jackson)