Cardinal Peter Turkson, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, poses for a photo with Sister Alicia Costa, congregational leader of the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans Sept. 28, 2022. He met with the sisters to discuss the sainthood cause for Mother Henriette Delille, the free woman of color who founded the congregation in 1842 to educate the enslaved and care for the elderly. She has been declared “venerable” and her cause rests with the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints. (CNS photo/Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald)
Black Americans on the road to sainthood: Venerable Henriette Delille
BY F. VERONICA WILHITE, OFFICE OF BLACK CATHOLIC MINISTRY
Henriette Delille was born in 1813 in New Orleans to a French father and a “free woman of color” who were united in a “legal” common-law marriage which was typical at the time in New Orleans whereby a European man contracted with a Creole woman, pledging support and education for their children. Once the men were more established financially, they would often leave their common-law wives for a white, American woman. As a Creole, Henriette was a qualified “candidate” for the same such marriage, and her mother resolved to see her do so. Henriette, however, was not so inclined. In fact, her resistance brings to mind the theme this year for Black History Month.
Although prepared for such a life and often in attendance at “quadroon balls,” Henriette, because of her deep love of God and faith in the teachings of the Church became outspoken and openly resistant to this system because it was in violation of the sacrament of matrimony. This caused a rift with her mother who later became ill when Henriette was 22 years old and subsequently became her “ward.” After arranging for her mother’s care, Henriette sold her mother’s remaining assets and founded a small order of nuns consisting of seven young Creole women and one French woman who called themselves the Sisters of the Presentation.
This group began ministering to elderly women in need of care and shelter; Having made a commitment to her ministry she had, in fact, opened the first Catholic home for the elderly. This was in 1836, the same year that a French woman Jeanne Jugan started the little Sisters of the Poor, whose ministry was also caring for the elderly. Henriette wrote “I wish to live and die for God.” The nursing ministry expanded to teaching enslaved and free men, women and children, and supporting St. Claude school for young women of color.
Henriette dealt with many obstacles to her ministry, but she persisted despite lack of finances, taunts and often hostility from the Church, civil authorities, and the ruling population. The lack of support and often opposition to the idea of a Black religious congregation did not deter the sisters who were forbidden to wear habits or to take public vows because of their race.
In 1837 Henriette’s new order received recognition from the Holy See and five years later the congregation changed their name to Sisters of the Holy Family. Currently there are more than 200 members who continue their ministry in nursing and education in Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, California, and Belize. The Mother house and St. Mary’s Academy are worth a visit if you visit New Orleans.
Henriette DeLille died at the age of 49 in 1862. On March 27, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI declared the Creole woman from New Orleans “Venerable.”
For more information on Henriette Delille, “The Courage to Love” movie starring Vanessa Williams is available on video and free on YouTube.
F. Veronica Wilhite is the director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministry in the Diocese of Owensboro.
Originally printed in the February 2023 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.