Last month, Pope Francis met with Indigenous leaders to apologize for the role of Catholics in a Canadian boarding school system in which children were involuntarily separated from their families, language, culture and traditions with the goal of assimilation. Some were abused. The schools were established by the government but often Church-run.
“For the deplorable conduct of those members of the Catholic Church, I ask for God’s forgiveness, and I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry,” the pope told the representatives. He expressed a desire to travel to Canada to spend time with Indigenous communities.
The issue of residential schools received renewed attention a year ago when unmarked graves of children were found at two former residential schools in Canada. In the United States, the Department of the Interior announced last summer that it would conduct an investigation of former federally funded boarding schools to understand better what occurred in this country. At least 357 such schools — 15 in Minnesota — operated in the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. The public release of the federal government’s report is still pending.
The boarding schools represent a difficult and complicated chapter in the history of our country and its treatment of Indigenous people. Too often, human rights and dignity were violated. In a letter last November, the chairmen of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development and the USCCB’s Subcommittee on Native American Affairs encouraged their fellow bishops to cooperate in the government’s investigation and make connections with tribal leaders. Along those lines, the Minnesota Catholic Conference organized a meeting last December with tribal and diocesan leaders in Onamia to begin a conversation about the schools, their impact and the availability of Church-held archival records related to the schools.
Likewise, St. Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph, the College of St. Benedict and the White Earth Nation have been working collaboratively to address the boarding school legacy. Last year, the sisters issued a formal apology to the people of White Earth for their involvement in the boarding school located there. CSB and St. John’s University also have launched the Initiative for Native Nation Relations to pursue a variety of research and service activities.
The search for truth — both the good and bad — and taking steps to foster healing must continue. The path forward will not be easy, but it is important for the Church and Native Americans to make the journey together.
As the two chairmen said in their letter to the U.S. bishops: “If we can hold our ancestors in the faith in loving memory, celebrating the good and also being honest and transparent about failures and sin, while seeing our Native and Indigenous brothers and sisters as fellow beloved sons and daughters of God, then we firmly believe that this time can mark a step forward in the relationship between the Church and Indigenous peoples, and can deepen respect for the dignity of every person and the common good.”
Joe Towalski is the editor and the director of communications for the Diocese of St. Cloud.