Mother Henriette Delille, New Orleans Native, Declared Venerable

On Saturday, March 27, the Holy Father signed a decree advancing the cause of sainthood of Henriette Delille, declaring that this exemplary New Orleans Creole had lived a life of “heroic virtue.” As a native of that lately beleaguered city, I greeted this news with great joy, in company with all her admirers from the Crescent City and around the world. But none have heard it more enthusiastically than the religious sisters of her own order, the Sisters of the Holy Family. In the words of Sister Eva Regina Martin, the congregation’s leader, “We are dancing for joy … at the great and glorious news.” The first reaction of the good sisters was to gather in their chapel to sing the Te Deum in gratitude to God for this wonderful blessing.

The story of this sainted lady is most interesting, even controversial. Most sources call her a “free woman of color,” an expression used during the time of Negro slavery in this country to denote a woman of African descent who was not (either never or no longer) a slave. The story is actually a bit more complicated than that. Mother Delille’s great, great grandmother, Nanette, was brought from Africa as a slave. After the death of her owner, she became free. Some years later, she had amassed enough money to purchase her daughter, Cecile, and two of her grandchildren out of slavery. Spanish law, which ruled in Louisiana at that time, allowed slaves to purchase their freedom at a fair price from the master. A judicial process could be initiated if the owner refused. For the times, and in comparison with slavery in other areas of the American South, it was a compassionate system. Cecile herself became a businesswoman and slave owner.

henriette-delilleThe unspoken fact in all of this was that many of these free ladies of mixed African and white blood became “kept women” of the wealthy white planters. Their place in the stratified society of the time was rigid, and there was little other choice for them. Their offspring, therefore, had the national, cultural, and linguistic background of their fathers, as well as the African heritage of their mothers. Therefore, they could be of French, Spanish or other European culture. They led comfortable, even luxurious, lives (see here and here). They were wealthy families in the city, while their men, the white plantation owners, had their legitimate families in the rural areas, where their plantations were located. In other words, the men openly led “double lives.” Mother Delille’s own sister, also named Cecile, had several children by a wealthy white man.

As a devout Catholic — one who worked for the conversion to the Faith of those of the Black race in her native city — Henriette refused to accept this sinful lifestyle and devoted herself to God. In 1836, she wrote, “I wish to live and die for God.” She became a frequent sponsor for mixed-race babies at baptisms, both in St. Louis Cathedral and in St. Augustine Church in a nearby neighborhood. In addition, she was active in the St. Claude School, an establishment founded for the education of young girls of color.

During the 1840’s Mother Delille began assembling the group of young women who would become the Sisters of the Holy Family. Judging by the books the sisters held in their library, noted Father Cyprian Davis, Mother Delille’s biographer, they were all literate and intelligent women.

One of their first works of charity was caring for several elderly women, probably former slaves, who lived in the house next door to their own. Thus began one of the congregation’s primary charitable works, caring for the elderly and infirm. My own dear mother-in-law spent the last three years of her long life at the Lafon Nursing Home in New Orleans under the care of the good sisters of Mother Delille’s community.

It is interesting that our saint-to-be was a slave owner herself. She freed Betsy, her only slave, in her will. It was simply the way of the time. Another notable fact — and one for another discussion — is the claim that she was not Negro, but Creole, owing to her varied cultural heritage, although she certainly did have African in her ancestry as we have seen. (See here.)

Today, the Sisters of the Holy Family are still engaged in caring for the young and the elderly. The harrowing experience of Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005 brought floodwaters and death to the eastern section of New Orleans, where the nursing home and their girls’ high school were located. This entire part of the city lay devastated for a long time. It is finally coming to life again. According to Sister Doris Goudeaux, the nursing home has been rebuilt and will reopen next month, and the high school, St. Mary’s Academy, is being rebuilt and will reopen next August. In addition to their services in Louisiana, the good sisters have missions in Texas, California, Washington, D.C. and Belize. They are also involved in Nigeria in an educational mission.

Mother Henriette Delille’s contribution to the Church in New Orleans, and to Black New Orleanians in particular, was immense. She worked heroically to bring her people to God and to the true Faith. Sadly, she died at the relatively young age of 52, probably of tuberculosis.

Venerable Mother Henriette Delille, pray for us!

  • Mother Delille is not to be confused with another extraordinary free woman of color, who founded a religious congregation in the United States, Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange. A native of San Dominique (now Haiti), in 1828, Mother Mary Elizabeth founded the Sisters of Providence. Rome has approved work to be done at the diocesan level to begin her cause for canonization.

    You can read about her here:

    http://disciplesnow.faithstreams.com/SpecialFeatures/ProfilesinFaith/MotherMaryLange/tabid/26758/Default.aspx

    …and here:

    http://www.nathanielturner.com/mothermaryelizabethelange.htm

    (just ignore the “black theology” stuff)

    And, of course, on Wikipedia:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Elizabeth_Lange

  • fr. Tom Jackson, OP

    Brother Andre, “ignoring the Black Theology stuff” would be a disservice to the lived experience of these holy women. It borders on an explicit endorsement of vincible ignorance–and neglects the definition of racism as a defined “sin” in the Roman Catholic Church! (cf. The Pastoral Letter “Brothers and Sisters to Us”).

  •  Fr. Jackson,

    Neither the Fathers nor the Doctors of the Church — including your great Dominican brethren Sts. Thomas, and Albertus Magnus — ever heard of “Black Theology.” As a Catholic traditionalist, I have a healthy dose of cynicism regarding the various “theologies of the genitive” that have become fashionable in recent decades (even ones that don’t use the genitive construction, but adjectives, like “black,” “feminist,” “Asian,” etc.).

    I am of the opinion that any theology that is racially circumscribed runs afoul of St. Paul’s admonition to the Galatians that “There is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

    Don’t get me wrong, Father. I do not dismiss the worth of studying any of the various Catholic cultures that exist in the world. Polish Catholic culture, Filipino Catholic Culture, Haitian Creole Catholic Culture, Cajun Catholic Culture, Mexican Catholic culture, etc. These are things that we study at the level of language, the arts, letters, crafts, music, etc.

    But “theology” is the study of God; it is not anthropology. 

    I don’t think that St. Thomas would be offended if we neglected the study of “Lombardian Theology.” Nor, I venture a guess, would St. Albert be upset by our ignoring “Bavarian Theology.”

    The claim that ignoring such theological novelty has anything to do with racism is arbitrary and baseless. Ignoring — or even shunning — “feminist theology” is not misogynistic. Ditto for the others mentioned.

    Lastly, I don’t think that either of these holy women — Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, and Mother Henriette Delille — would have favored or even known anything about “black theology.” Much less would they be offended by my supposed “vincible ignorance” of it. If that assertion is wrong, and these saintly women of color did indeed favor “black theology,” I would welcome some supporting evidence.

  • My invincible ignorance: What is “black theology”?

  • Jacques: It’s a “liberation theology” inspired ideology. It is not Catholic theology, therefore, it is not really theology. Here is a quote from one of its significant practitioners: “A white man who is in power cannot be a Christian, unless he gives up that power and give it to the black man” – James Cone on Black Theology (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_theology )

    You can read more on it here: http://wdtprs.com/blog/2008/04/what-is-black-liberation-theology-some-basics/

    …and here:

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=89236116

  • Tonda Stewart

    What does it matter if Mother Henriette was black creole or pink with purple polka dots she did God’s work above and beyond…I saw the movie for the first time today she could have chosen to be a lady of leisure but she chose God’s work isn’t that the most important thing of all I am not catholic but have been influenced a good deal by Catholic sisters I just think it’s God’s glory that should be most noticed not who did it or their color if this offends I am truly sorry.

  • Tonda: I’m not offended, for what that’s worth. It was God who made men to be of different “nations, and tribes, and peoples, and tongues.” He wanted Venerable Mother Henriette to be what she was, and that is beautiful, is it not?

    You are not a Catholic. Let me do what Mother Henriette would probably do: invite you into the Catholic Church, God’s Church. Although God made a variety of nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, he gave us only one true religion.

    Do consider it, please. God bless and Mary keep you.

  • Tonda Stewart

    When people quit trying to label each other this world will be a much nicer place……I am not a church person but I believe in prayer and in God I just hope people wake up and realize how much we could help each other if we just quit judging I don’t want to be judged so I do my best to not judge others Mother Henriette was judged a good bit from what I saw in the movie and she never gave up on God and he didn’t leave her behind honestly isn’t that suppose to be the true message?

  • Tonda Stewart

    I have been to catholic services many times a few in latin which I would love to learn I was born in a catholic run hospital and have interacted with nuns all my life adult and child, I belong to no particular church the problem with being poor is embarrassment about clothing and the judgement that goes on but I would love to be connected to nuns here in Pittsburgh to give my baby designed crochet outfits to give to others, and find a source of both #4 and #3 weight yarns to have and ongoing to source to constantly do these things could you help me with this? I am disabled and my therapy approved by my doctors is knitting and crocheting….Very few churches have ever made me feel at ease or even wanted but I will do what I understand that God wants me doing knowing my disabilities if you are able to help me and can give me an email to work with that would be great if you can’t and I do understand in this economy if you can’t well God Bless you for all you do….I am agoraphobic and don’t deal with people another reason for no church shaking hands with strangers puts me in a panic I figure God has made me this way for a reason and I will not question……Brother Andre may God continue to bless you in your work. you can find me through facebook private message me on there and I will give you my email address as well and we can continue this discussion I want to do this anonymously as I am not doing it for attention doing it only to help and btw what does venerable mean in the catholic church I assume that it’s the first step on the path to canonization?
    Tonda

  • Yes, Tonda, “Venerable” is a step in the way to canonization. The next step is “Blessed,” then “Saint.”

    If you go to a Traditional Latin Mass, you won’t have to worry about people trying to shake your hand, as there is none of that in the ceremony.

    I just attempted to message you on fb.

  • Tonda Stewart

    https://www.facebook.com/Tonda.Stewart
    I am in Pittsburgh Pa sorry I should have given you that information

  • Tonda Stewart

    Latin Masses are all but extinct in the Pittsburgh Pa proper I went to one as a Teenager in Minnesota when in Girl Scouts I found it very interesting most hospitals tend to be catholic in their chapels and I have spent far too much time in hospitals both myself and my children…to not visit the chapel for finding peace.

  • GeneDe

    Brother.. I wonder if the Sisters in Ohio might be able to help this lady? Just a thought.

  • Tonda Stewart

    I love to make and donate things I have only two problems yarn and a need for postal partner….any help I can get is welcome also my joy is making things for babies I am 53 and I don’t have a long attention span any longer :D so at this point in my life I opt for small projects right now I am making scarves for female members of my family and I get bored when I am 2 or 3 inches from done so now you know my story :D

  • Mike

    I was surprised to find that she is considered “black” or “African American.” This reminds me of the “one drop” rule that placed anybody with even a drop of African blood into the “negro” category. Clearly, the slave culture of the time and the more English nature of the United States liked to group people for exploitative reasons and to deal with rigid Puritan ideals of racial stratification. Ancient culture, from which the Church sprang, was much less color paranoid, and even today, you see that Latin American countries do not consider somebody that has a bit of African blood to be “black.” I think politicians and communists take advantage of these groupings to enlarge a group that they patronize to curry favor for votes. The Church, especially in the United States, should be careful not to emphasize such grouping, and to avoid praising a certain member of the “civil rights” movement, who was named after the infamous Martin Luther, and who denied the divinity of Christ, claiming he was the equivalent of the Roman Cult of Mithras. We have seen over the past 60 years in this country how destructive grouping people into victim categories has been to our culture as a whole but most specifically to these “minority” groups which we simply refuse to accept. Worst of all, you have these parasites that make a living off of the misery within their own groups like “The Reverend” Al Sharpton, and Rap Artists that glorify selling drugs and fornication. For the first time we have seen being called a “pimp” as a compliment.

  • Eleonore Villarrubia

    Mike, as the article explains, Venerable Henriette Delille was of mixed race and ancestry. New Orleans was a sort of “melting pot” having been founded and settled by the French, falling into Spanish hands for a time, then becoming part of the United States in 1803 at the time of the Louisiana Purchase. It was a long time before it was American in culture, however, and to this day, many persons of mixed racial heritage consider themselves properly called “Creole” – a word with several definitions. There are websites explaining this belief of the New Orleans Creoles.
    Indeed, even today, compared to most American cities, New Orleans is “different” with its “French” Quarter,” its “American” side of Canal Street settled in later years by wealthier newcomer Americans (who built the grand mansions of Saint Charles Avenue), its “Irish Channel” neighborhood. Some say it is more European than American. Perhaps this was truer in days gone by than it is now. At any rate, for good or bad, there is no other city in our country quite like New Orleans.

  • Victoria Raye Stephens

    It matters because she was excluded from joining the Carmalite nuns and the Ursaline nuns due to her ancestry!!! It didnt matter how good her works were she was excluded and had to start her own !! Thats why she is celebrated for breaking out the placage system that plagued the New Orleans Area!! God Bless Her and The Sisters of the Holy Family!!