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  • Courtney Lyons

Library holds 2023 archives speaker series

By Courtney Lyons, Contributor

On Oct. 3, Canisius University professor emeritus of history Dr. Larry Jones delivered a lecture entitled, “John LaFarge, S.J., and the Secret Encyclical on Racism and Antisemitism, 1938-39” as part of the 2023 Archives Speaker Series. Presented by Canisius’s Archives and Special Collections, archivist and reference librarian Kathleen Delaney introduced the presentation by noting the lecture was intentionally scheduled during Banned Books Week, the American Library Association’s annual campaign to promote freedom in reading. Especially in today’s political climate, Delaney cited an immense need to acknowledge the occasion as librarians increasingly come under attack in their intellectual pursuits.

LaFarge, in his 83-year lifespan beginning in Rhode Island in 1880, went from being a first-year philosophy professor at Canisius College to direct correspondence with Pope Pius XI. LaFarge had an incontrovertible calling to the priesthood and joined the Society of Jesus. Dr. Jones articulated that LaFarge’s ministering in the dilapidated St. Mary’s City, Maryland was “extremely informative in his own development” because he confronted poverty and racism — societal ills his former wealthy, Rhode Islander lifestyle were immune from. LaFarge was dedicated to improving conditions through education and establishing common connections between Black and white residents.

LaFarge relocated to New York City to be on the editorial staff of America Magazine, a prominent Jesuit publication, where he concentrated on race relations. LaFarge was then sent to Europe in 1938 for a firsthand understanding of hostilities, where he received a summons to meet with Pope Pius XI, who found no basis for antisemitism in Christian doctrine. Dr. Jones stated that in 1937 Pope Pius XI not so much commissions, but rather “implores” LaFarge “to draft an encyclical against racism and antisemitism.”

The encyclical, however, never saw the daylight. After working with two fellow Jesuits, LaFarge had to return to the United States for familial emergencies, never hand-delivering his draft to the Pope. Instead, it was given to the head of the Jesuit order, Wlodimir Ledóchowski, who betrayed LaFarge and was reported to have destroyed the text.

From 1939 to 1963, Dr. Jones described how LaFarge took a “vow of silence” regarding this encyclical. He broke that vow in 1963, expressing disappointment that his efforts never came to fruition. That same year, LaFarge, who founded New York City’s Catholic Interracial Council, met with President John F. Kennedy to discuss civil rights and participated in the March on Washington. Dr. Jones said “nothing could have epitomized LaFarge’s dedication” to human rights more than Martin Luther King Jr.’s famed “I Have a Dream” speech.

In a posthumous publication of the New Catholic Encyclopedia, LaFarge wrote an article that his hidden encyclical was “well known,” but, as Dr. Jones explained, readers were blindsided to find that the Catholic Church utterly suppressed this project. Dr. Jones discussed how Pope Pius XI’s successor would not have served since his political strategy centered on diplomacy and cooperation with fascist regimes: a methodology that would have been frowned upon if the contents of LaFarge’s encyclical on entrenched antisemitism and racism surfaced.

After completing his presentation, Dr. Jones stated, “For me, this has been an exciting experience getting to know a man like LaFarge and the fight he put up for human rights.” For the Canisius students, faculty and visitors all gathered in the Andrew L. Bouwhuis Library, it was likewise “an exciting experience” to learn about this little known but remarkable man with local ties.

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