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Sisters of the Holy Family

Sisters of the Holy Family

Sisters of the Holy Family, one of the earliest religious orders of black women in America, was founded in 1842 by Henriette Delille in New Orleans, Louisiana. Delille was an educated free woman of African descent who had worked with Sister Ste. Marthe Fontier and Marie Jeanne Aliquot, two Catholic women from France who went to New Orleans in the 1820s to serve the black community. Their efforts to form an integrated religious community were unsuccessful because of state segregation laws. In the late 1820s Delille and Juliette Gaudin, a Cuban-born woman of African descent, continued their service to the black community by teaching religion to slaves. Delille and Gaudin tried to form a community of black nuns but confronted entrenched racism among Catholics and widespread discrimination. In the late 1820s the Ursuline Sisters refused to allow them to become a black branch. When they tried to found an independent order, they faced institutional barriers for recognition under civil law and had to challenge prevalent notions about the inability of black women to become nuns. In 1842, with the support of Abbé Rousselon, the pastor of St. Augustine parish, the diocese finally allowed them to begin a new order in St. Augustine's Church. Only in 1872 did they gain the right to wear the habit publicly, and not until 1949 were they officially recognized by the Vatican as an independent religious congregation.

Although the Holy Family Sisters was a small orderthere were only six members in 1960they provided many important services for the African-American community. They encouraged slave couples to have their unions blessed in the church and discouraged concubinage between white men and women of color in Louisiana. They nursed the ill during a yellow fever epidemic in 1853. After the Civil War and Reconstruction they supervised an asylum for African-American girls and organized a home for orphaned African-American boys in 1896. In 1920 the boys' home was converted into a home for the aged. Their most important work, however, was in the field of education. They opened schools in Texas and Belize in addition to six schools in New Orleans. The schools served both the middle class and the poor. By 1970 the sisters were also offering day care services. The Sisters of the Holy Family continue to provide crucial social services and religious and academic training for the African-American community into the early 2000s.

See also Catholicism in the Americas


Davis, Cyprian. The History of Black Catholics in the United States. New York: Crossroad, 1990.

Detiege, Sister Audrey Marie. Henriette Delille: Free Woman of Color. New Orleans, La.: Sisters of the Holy Family, 1976.

Deggs, Mary Bernard. No Cross, No Crown: Black Nuns in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Hart, Sister Mary Francis. Violets in the King's Garden: A History of the Sisters of the Holy Family of New Orleans. New Orleans, La., 1976.

premilla nadasen (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

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