A shuttered cathedral that once rose to prominence with support from slave traders is on track for a new mission that grows out of its conflicted past: fostering racial reconciliation in the United States.

The Diocese of Rhode Island voted at its November convention to create a National Center for Reconciliation, which is laying groundwork for a launch this year. If all goes according to plan, it will eventually be housed alongside a new slave-trade museum and worship space in Providence’s Cathedral of St. John, which has been closed since 2012.

The vision calls for exploring links between faith and the slave trade. Visitors would learn how Episcopal institutions first benefited from slavery but then later helped abolish it.

Telling that story would make the museum unique, as would its ties to a center where practical outreach — including training for interventions in racial conflicts like those in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer — will focus on reconciliation.

“We anticipate that people will find this project uncomfortable or challenging,” said the Rev. Linda Grenz, canon to the ordinary for the Diocese of Rhode Island, via email. “But we are called to the ministry of reconciliation — and we can’t be agents of reconciliation without being honest about the past and hearing the pain of our brothers and sisters today.”

The goal is to confront and redeem an often-ignored facet of Rhode Island history and the church’s past. More than half the voyages from the United States to round up slaves for the Americas originated in the Ocean State.

“Much of [Rhode Island’s] economy was built with the profits of that trade,” said the Rt. Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely, Bishop of Rhode Island, in his convention address. “Many (perhaps most) of those businesses were owned and operated by Episcopalians. So we feel we have both an obligation and an opportunity to speak the truth about the church’s role in the slave trade.”

The Diocese has enlisted several partners, including the Tracing Center in Watertown, Massachusetts, and Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice. The National Center for Reconciliation will cosponsor several events at Brown in 2015. A quiet phase of fundraising has begun as well, and contributions are coming in.

Telling the history as a path to reconciliation will not be easy for any group of people, according to Tracing Center’s executive director, James DeWolf Perry, whose ancestry includes a leading slave trader, James DeWolf, and a former Bishop of Rhode Island, the late Rt. Rev. James DeWolf Perry.

Perry said some African-Americans would prefer to focus on more positive aspects of their history. What’s more, many white New Englanders would rather not confront their checkered history.

“Here in the North, this gap between public memory and reality is huge,” said Perry, whose book Interpreting Slavery at Museums and History Sites (Rowman & Littlefield) came out in December. “We tend in retrospect to think of ourselves as the good guys in history who ended slavery after the Civil War. We forget that we were very reluctant to end Southern slavery, and that we had essentially built the North on the economics of slavery.”

Perry insists the path to redemption must include an unvarnished reckoning with realities of the past. Such reckoning would build on recent initiatives in the Episcopal Church. In the past decade, resolutions adopted at General Convention have acknowledged and apologized for the church’s historic complicity with slavery.

Before a slave-trade history could be showcased inside the cathedral, the custodial Cathedral Corporation would first need to approve extensive renovations to the facility. Meanwhile, the National Center for Reconciliation is forging ahead.

“I suspect we shall have some official ‘launch’ event/date when we get the 501c3 incorporation done and a board named,” Grenz said. “But we’re not waiting for that to happen before we start the important work of reconciliation.”

Image of St. John’s Cathedral of St. John at Roger Williams National Memorial is from Providence Public Library’s Rhode Island Image Collection.

G. Jeffrey MacDonald

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