Arthur Christory / Gavel Media

Jesuits' Hidden Involvement in Indigenous Genocide

Gasson Hall is the crown jewel of any Boston College tour. The tour guide takes a deep breath before opening the door and tells their participants to prepare themselves. Walking in for the first time and seeing the statues and art, some say it can take your breath away. The Archangel Michael is overcoming the Devil, a classic story of good vs. evil. Every Boston College student knows that Gasson Hall is one of the most beautiful buildings on campus. 

But if one looks above this statue, they will see another story entirely. The murals in Gasson include one representing a Jesuit scholar, as education is one of the most important Jesuit values. Yet, some of the murals in Gasson hall have a stained past, particularly the murals of European Jesuit priests either leading Mass on Indigenous land or guiding boats with Indigenous passengers. Without proper historical context, these portraits could seem benign. They even paint Catholic and Jesuit priests as friends to Indigenous peoples. From these murals most could assume that the relationship between Indigenous people and the Catholic Church had little turmoil. This is far from the truth. Today, it is imaginable that many prospective students on their Boston College tour can leave with a bad taste in their mouth after looking at these murals. The murals of Gasson Hall represent Boston College’s inability to recognize the atrocities committed by the Catholic Church on Indigenous communities. 

Many Indigenous children throughout the 19th and 20th century were taken from their homes and brought to boarding schools.Their purpose was to get rid of any cultural ties children had to Indigenous culture and assimilate them into so-called “civilization.” They were constantly told that they were inferior due to their race. The popularized mission for the schools was “Kill the Indian, save the child.” Children were taken from their homes and forced to conform to Anglo-American ideas of what people should look like. Their hair, an important part of their Indigenous identity, was cut short. Conditions in the schools were horrendous. Disease spread, and children were subject to extreme punishment if they spoke their own language. Many children also suffered from physical, sexual, and mental abuse, and some later died by suicide. The children were also not allowed to have any contact with their family. If a child died—and many did—the parents would find out much later and be given little context. A national Truth and Reconciliation Commission declared in 2015 that the schools, were a form of “cultural genocide.”

In May 2021, 215 bodies of Indigenous students were found in Canada. Today, some estimate that there are about 10,000 to 50,000 children buried in unmarked graves as a result of these schools. The parents of the deceased children were never told what happened. They never understood the suffering of their children. In Canada, around 70% of these Residential Schools were run by the Catholic Church.

If we turn even further back in history, these atrocities were not new for the Catholic Church. The first Jesuits missionaries came under the guise of mass conversion. In 1611, French Jesuits held the first Mass on American soil. Jesuits came from Italy, France, England, Spain, and elsewhere to become a part of the “New World.'' They set up missionaries throughout North America. In colonial Brazil, the Jesuits gained political control for the Portuguese Crown. They set up villages specifically for Indigenous populations. These people were used as free labor for Portugal, and because of their status as a religious organization, the Jesuits were excused from having to give money back to the Crown. By using this slave labor, which stripped Indigenous peoples of their culture and connection to others, the Jesuits greatly increased their economic standing.

Select people at the time saw these as horrendous human rights violations. Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Spanish priest who saw what was happening first-hand, begged the King of Spain to remove their involvement in the New World. Though Las Casas saw the Indigenous population as people only through their involvement in the Catholic Church, which is its own problem, he recognized that what was being done to them was horrific. He wrote to the King of Spain, “Nay we dare boldly affirm, that during the Forty Years space, wherein they exercised their sanguinary and detestable Tyranny in these Regions, above Twelve Millions (computing Men, Women, and Children) have undeservedly perished; nor do I conceive that I should deviate from the Truth by saying that above Fifty Millions in all paid their last Debt to Nature.” Las Casas recognized back then that missions and the Catholic Church were partly to blame for Indigenous genocide. He serves as a true guide for what a Catholic priest should have done at the time. 

In knowing these histories, the murals have a profoundly different effect. They no longer look like representations of Jesuits helping others. To a well-informed prospective student on a Boston College tour, these murals send a message—one of apathy. Boston College must recognize the effect of the Catholic Church on Indigenous peoples. The Church not only stripped them of their lives, but of years of culture and heritage, and the least that can be done is ensure that the perpetrators are no longer celebrated.