It was with a sense of sadness last week that we watched the removal of one of Dubuque’s most iconic statues: that of Bishop Matthias Loras.
The statue of Dubuque’s first bishop stood tall overlooking Loras Boulevard and downtown Dubuque for more than 80 years. But Loras President Jim Collins announced that college officials decided to take down the statue after learning troubling new information about the legacy of the school’s founder.
A researcher confirmed that Loras purchased an enslaved woman named Marie Louise while he was living in Mobile, Ala. Loras enslaved the woman from 1836 to 1852. He left her behind when he moved to Iowa but “hired her out to others and used proceeds from her labor to help build his various ministries” in Dubuque, Collins wrote in his letter.
“Doing a new, detailed analysis of historic documents and Bishop Loras’ unpublished personal financial ledgers, the researcher showed for the first time the extent of those transactions, leading to a new understanding of Bishop Loras’ participation in the system of slavery,” Collins wrote. He also noted that Loras faculty then “confirmed that these facts are indisputable.”
Upon learning that information, Collins spent weeks leading discussions with leaders at the college, as well as other individuals and the school’s Board of Regents, which met twice before deciding to remove the statue of the bishop for the time being.
It had to be a gut-wrenching decision, particularly for those who hold Loras College dear.
Within minutes of the news breaking, the vitriol poured in, with some vilifying Collins and vowing to never give the school “another dime.”
That kind of reaction has become typical in our society. We have in social media a megaphone to expel our knee-jerk reactions to the world, to engage in histrionic arguments and to insult all those who disagree with us. One would think, reading the social media commentary, that the decision was an obvious one.
Nearly every person who commented knew in a moment what the right decision was — though those “right decisions” ran the gamut, from leaving the statue as it was, to changing the name of the school and the street that runs along it.
Yet, this isn’t a simple issue. Adults hope that children are learning to think critically in school these days. But how many adults employ critical thinking when faced with having to view in a new way something we had always believed to be true?
Collins and the coalition of Loras leaders he assembled were faced with an incredibly difficult situation. And yes, it had to be viewed through the lens of the times in which we live.
Whatever decision was made, there was bound to be an unhappy faction. But school leaders pursued further research, they sought diverse opinions, and ultimately, they went with the decision that they felt was in the best interest of the school that is Loras today.
Some of those who disagree call out the college for trying to rewrite history.
Here’s the thing: History was written only one way for decades — through the lens of White men’s perspective. If we never re-examined history, we would never know the contributions of women or of people of color because those stories were seldom told. To launch this conversation about Bishop Loras and his past is not to rewrite history, but to look at it more broadly and understand all of its nuance, not just the stories that have always been told.
Removing a statute does not erase or rewrite history. It only removes the “tribute” or visual representation of the person. And the statue isn’t necessarily gone forever. Perhaps there is a place on campus to commemorate Bishop Loras — and maybe display the statue — along with more context about his life and the times in which he lived.
As the Loras community works through this challenging time and determines the next steps, no doubt others will weigh in with opinions. Those who choose to do so should take care to think critically through all the facets of this issue and the people this decision will impact. It most assuredly is not simple.