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.
The 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!