Delille, Henriette 1813–1862
Henriette Delille 1813–1862
Henriette Delille was born into a life of privilege, a fact which did not prevent her from fighting racism in nineteenth-century New Orleans. A devout Catholic, Delille was the foundress of the Sisters of the Holy Family religious order. As a nonwhite during the 1800s, Delille overcame opposition at every turn to carrying out her mission of care to the ignorant and impoverished. In 1989, her case was brought to the Catholic Church for consideration for sainthood. If the effort is successful, she will be the first black American woman to be sainted.
Delille was born a “free person of color” in New Orleans in 1813. Technically, she was a quadroon, meaning she was believed to be one-fourth black. Though her parents and siblings listed themselves as white in the census, Delille used the label, free person of color, which applied to all biracial people. She was the youngest of three children born to Marie Josef Dias and Jean Baptiste Delille-Sarpy, a white man of French descent, who never married. Instead, they had an arrangement known as a plagage, which was common between wealthy white Creole men and free women of color. The children born into the relationship were well taken care of, but the couple never married since laws prohibited it. Delille’s parents were Catholic, as were most Creoles and free people of color.
Sister Marthe Fontier, the only New Orleans member of the French order, Dames Hospi-talieres, opened a school for girls of color and was thought to have significantly influenced Delille. As a teen, Delille gave up her privileged life, against her mother’s wishes, and began preaching to slaves and free nonwhites. Her efforts to work within the Church to improve the lives of the racially mixed underclass were reinforced by the fact that the Church crossed the race line in Mass and had mixed choirs. However, Delille soon encountered the Church’s own forms of racism.
In the 1830 census Delille, unlike the rest of her family, chose not to register as white. Family members were so light-skinned they could easily pass for white. “Henri-ette’s resistance to this change of racial status was heroic,” wrote Joseph H. Fichter in America, “and her decision to stay with ‘her own’ was testimony to her rejection of worldly aspirations.” However, by declaring herself nonwhite, she was refused as a postulant by the Ursuline and Carmelite nuns, open only to white women. Nonetheless, Delille and her friend Juliette
Born Henriette Delille, a “free person of color” in New Orleans in 1813 to Marie Josef Dias and Jean Baptiste Delille-Sarpy (a white man of French descent); died New Orleans, 1862. Education: Attended Sister Marthe Fontier’s school; Religion: Catholic.
Career: Began preaching to slaves and nonwhites as a teen; privately pledged herself to God’s service, 1836; established a home for elderly nonwhites and the education nonwhites in religion, 1842; founded Sisters of the Holy Family; spent time at a white convent, 1852; took official vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to Cod before Père Rousselon, 1852.
Addresses: Office — Henriette Delille Commission Office, 6901 Chef Menteur Highway, New Orleans, LA 70126-5290. Website— Official Website of the Sisters of the Holy Family: http://www.sistersoftheholyfamily.org.
Gaudin, a fellow free person of color, continued to pray together and teach nonwhites. In 1836, they privately pledged themselves to God’s service. They shared their pledge with two white French immigrants, Pere Rous-selon and Marie Jeanne Aliquot.
In 1842, Rousselon helped the two women establish a home for elderly nonwhites. With loans and part of her inheritance, Delille bought a house where she could teach religion to nonwhites, despite the fact that educating nonwhites was illegal at the time. A year later, Delille and Gaudin were joined by another free person of color, Josephine Charles. “There is documentation showing these women did not gloss over the prejudice, the difficulties, the hardships,” Archdiocese of New Orleans archivist Charles E. Nolan was quoted as saying on Philly.com. “Still, there’s not a note of bitterness—and that’s one of the gifts she had, the ability to step beyond all of the hurt and prejudice and take the next step, to do what God called them to do.”
Delille, with Gaudin and Charles, founded the Sisters of the Holy Family, though they were not acknowledged as a religious sisterhood by the Catholic church. The order reflected Delille’s social concerns and was devoted to the poor and uneducated. They nursed the sick during epidemics that devastated New Orleans. They provided hospice care and created an annex for the city’s many orphans.
On October 15, 1852, the three women officially took their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to God before Pere Rousselon, with Delille as superior. They donned the simple black uniform of a religious order. “The woman who founded our order went to the poorest of the poor, and that is the legacy she left us,” Sister Sylvia Thibodeaux told the Los Angeles Times, “She was the servant of slaves. You can’t get more committed than that.”
After Delille died in 1862, there were only 12 members of the order. Soon after, only five of these remained, including co-founders Gaudin and Charles. Yet under their care, the order thrived and grew. Ultimately the Sisters of the Holy Family had missions in Compton, California; Texas; Washington D.C.; and the country of Belize, which ran child care centers, nursing homes, and orphanages. “What Henriette Delille did in her time could be compared to what Mother Theresa did in hers,” Sister Angela Merici Luis, of the Sisters of the Holy Family in Compton, California, told the Los Angeles Times.
In the late sixties, the Sisters of the Holy Family approached the archbishop of New Orleans about embarking on the canonization process. When they asked for his support, he replied, “Why did you all wait so long?” according to the Los Angeles Times. “Clearly this is a life that needs to be elevated to sainthood.” The sisters had waited because, before 1960, they doubted the Church would elevate a black woman to sainthood.
In 1989 the Sisters of the Holy Family formally opened Delille’s cause for canonization with the Catholic Church, a process which can take decades, sometimes centuries. If the process is successful, Delille would become the first American-born black saint. Part of the canonization effort is to document two miracles ascribed to Delille. The sisters had to provide proof—in an interview, medical record, or other document—that someone who prayed to Delille then experienced an act of God. “Now and then we get letters from people mentioning things that appear to be miracles,” Sister Sylvia Thibodeaux was quoted as saying on Philly.com, “but there’s nothing definitive yet.”
Researchers from the order studied over 30 archives in the United States, France, and Rome preparing Delille’s bid and comprehensive biography. However, no proof of her deeds or miracles is needed by those whom Delille has helped. “A papal signature doesn’t make you a saint…[Delille] has made tons of miracles in my eyes,” Sister Francis Paula Guillory of the Sisters of the Holy Family told the Los Angeles Times. “When I don’t know where to turn, I say, ‘Delille, show me the way.’ I never asked her for anything I did not get….I know she’s a saint.” The sisters prayed daily for Delille’s sainthood and handed out buttons that read “Henriette Delille 2000.”
In 1996, actress Vanessa L. Williams first became interested in a made-for-TV movie script, The Courage to Love, based on Delille’s life story. The sisters were concerned that the movie could inaccurately depict Delille and damage the bid for sainthood. The sisters called and wrote protest letters to Williams, who starred in and was co-executive producer on the film. They asked her to put the project aside until the canonization process was completed. Williams ensured them that the script was historically accurate. “We are doing as loving a story as we possibly can,” Williams told the Los Angeles Times. “The last thing I would want to do is alienate the very women I’m trying to honor.”
The Courage to Love premiered January 24, 2001 on the Lifetime cable channel. Those close to Delille’s canonization effort were apprehensive about it. In a letter to the Clarion Herald, Messenger Clinton J. Doskey, the head of the effort, voiced his opinion: he declared the movie clearly a “‘Hollywood’ version” of Delille’s life, but he did not believe the film would “desanctify” Delille if viewed as such. The years took their toll on the Sisters of the Holy Family. As of 2000, their median age was 67, and their numbers were down from a high of 400 sisters in the fifties, to 171.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed., Notable Black American Women, Gale Research, 1992.
America, February 29, 1992, p. 156.
Los Angeles Times, August 18, 1999, p. 1.
New York Times, January 23, 2000, p. 63.
“Delille piece fictional,” Clarion Herald, http://www.clarionherald.org (July 12, 2001).
“Seeking beatification,” Philly.com, http://www.philly.com (July 12, 2001).
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