Modern Day Saint
Mother Henriette Delille
Mother Henriette’s cause for canonization was introduced in 1989. She is the first native-born African-American so honored. To fully appreciate Henriette Delille, her accomplishments, and the obstacles she overcame, we need to look at life in New Orleans in the early 1800s. The original settlers of New Orleans were French and Spanish colonists who brought with them their customs and Catholic faith. Their cultures blended with those of Native Americans and African slaves. New Orleans was and still is remarkably different from the rest of the United States which at that time was largely English and Protestant.
While most people in New Orleans considered themselves Catholic, it was more a label than a way of life. Due to the shortage of priests, the behavior of many ‘Catholic’ citizens was anything but Catholic. Even the clergy condoned the unique arrangements that were part of life in that area. For white males, this was the land of opportunity. For white females, it was a different story. They had few educational opportunities, were less well off financially, and were not even allowed to vote. A slave could be sold or beaten at the whim of his master. Slaves were forbidden by law to learn to read and write. In the early 1800s it was possible for a slave to be freed or to buy his freedom. Some even became wealthy and owned slaves themselves but were still limited by their skin color.
In New Orleans there was still another class of people called “free people of color.” These were free people of mixed race, and although they were not slaves, they were never fully accepted by white society, being part of each race and accepted by neither. Laws restricted interaction between whites and slaves. Women could not legally marry outside their class. Many free women of color saw an opportunity to give their children a better chance in life by not marrying; instead becoming the mistresses of wealthy white men. Their light-skinned children would have far more opportunities in life, and those with the fairest skin often escaped their fate by “passing” as white.
It was an accepted practice for a wealthy white man to form a liaison with an attractive woman of color. The children were acknowledged by their father, given their father’s name, baptized, and sometime sent off to Europe to be educated. By law the father could even leave property to these children. When Henriette was born in 1812, her mother was mistress to a wealthy white man, as was her grandmother. Henriette grew up with the intention of doing the same. At the age of 12, she met Sister St. Marthe Fontier, a French nun who had opened a school for free people of color. By the time Henriette reached 16 she was praying, visiting the sick and elderly, and teaching religion.
None of this was easy for Henriette; her mother, brother, and sister were all urging her to find a ‘suitable’ white partner. Henriette refused to ‘sell’ herself and declared such arrangements were actually sinful even if accepted by society. In 1835, when she was in her early 20’s, Henriette sold property she had inherited and with Marie Jeanne Aliquot, a Frenchwoman whose life had been saved by a colored man, and Juliette Gaudin, another woman of color, set out to establish a community of negro sisters to continue the work of Sister St. Marthe. This ended in failure in 1836 because it was illegal for Negroes and whites to have close contact.
The Bishop of New Orleans and a priest from the city supported the women even though many people thought the idea of colored nuns ridiculous. Finally in 1842, they established the community of the Sisters of the Holy Family.
In spite of ridicule and scorn from much of society, the sisters succeeded in establishing a home for the elderly in 1848 and soon thereafter purchased a home to be used to provide religious education for Negroes. Yet it wasn’t until 1852 that the Sisters of the Holy Family were able to take private vows to dedicate the rest of their lives to God and devote all of their earthly means to establish an order for the education of young ladies of color and the success and relief of poor, elderly colored people and orphan girls. It was not until 1869, seven years after Henriette’s death that the small group of eight sisters was allowed to wear a habit, and make public vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
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