“I want to live and die for God”: Henriette Delille

henriette-delilleThis week marks the 150th anniversary of the death of an important and fascinating figure in American Catholic history. Henriette Delille, who died on November 17, 1862, was declared “venerable” two years ago by Pope Benedict XVI. That’s a recognition that she lived a life of heroic virtue, two steps removed from canonization. Though her birthdate is uncertain, she was probably born in 1812 or 1813, and so we stand at the 200th anniversary of her birth as well.

Henriette’s background, life, and ministry are marked dramatically by the distinctive era and place in which she lived her life. They are alsoMother Henriette Delille, found of the Catholic order, Sisters of the Holy Family in many ways a monument to Catholic social teaching on human dignity.

Henriette was a Creole woman — free, mixed race, and light-skinned — of New Orleans. Her mother was of one-quarter black ancestry (known at the time as a “quadroon”),  as well as French and Spanish ancestry. Henriette’s great-great grandmother had been  brought from Africa as a slave, freed after the death of her owner, and later saved enough money to buy her own children out of slavery. (Here’s a jarring fact, and a sign of the moral blind spot that so many of the time lived with: one of the daughters she bought out of slavery went on to become a business owner and also slave-owner herself.)

Henriette’s father was an aristocratic white man, born in France, who took her mother as a mistress. In the New Orleans of the day, under the cultural system known as placage, a mixed race woman was expected to play the role of mistress to a wealthy white man, forming with him a second family alongside the one he raised with his real wife. They were “kept women” who lived comfortable and luxurious lives. (The painting at the left, of “Creole women of color out taking the air,” is by Édouard Marquis, a New Orleans artist of the mid-nineteenth century.)  As such, Henriette’s parents were never married.

This is exactly the life that Henriette’s sister lived, and it was the one Henriette was expected by all around her to live, too. As a teen, she attended balls, the point of which were to introduce her to the businessmen of town.  At one of these balls, she met Sister St. Marthe Fontier, a religious sister whose lifestyle impressed her and fired her own spiritual imagination.

She wanted to become a religious sister but was unable to join the Ursuline or Carmelite sisters in New Orleans, because they only accepted white women. During the 1840’s, with a group of friends, also mixed race young women, she began serving the elderly and the poor of New Orleans — both slaves and free people — and sharing the Catholic faith with them. They would become the Sisters of the Holy Family.

New Orleans church records indicate that Mother Henriette, as she came to be known, stood frequently in the role of godmother at baptisms. She openly criticized the placage system as a violation of the sacrament of marriage.

When she died in 1862, around the age of 50, there were 12 members of the community. Another jarring sign of the moral blind spots that seem to be inherent in human nature, even among those in whom we see moral greatness: Henriette’s will indicates that upon her death the slave she owned was to be freed. Are there other canonized saints who were slave-owners? I don’t know. But if she is canonized, there will be one.

Her community continued to grow for the next century, eventually to over 400 members. The order still exists today, with over 100 sisters, in New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina devastated much of their property, including a nursing home for the elderly they run, and damaged or destroyed some of the already sparse written records related to Mother Henriette’s life.

One of the items that remains, though badly damaged by the storm, is a prayerbook that was owned by Henriette. One of the notes written in her own handwriting, in French, on the margins of its pages is: “I believe in God. I hope in God. I love. I want to live and die for God.”

(I did some preliminary work for an article on Henriette Delille for a Catholic publication, which ultimately was not published. But an interview I did with the current congregational leader of the Sisters of the Holy Family, Sister Eva Regina Martin, SSF, was helpful for this post, and I offer her my thanks for her time. Other sources for the above material include this, this, this, and this.)

Dorothy’s cause

I guess someone has finally paid attention to the Dorothy Day — Sainthood Now! bumper sticker on my car.

From the USCCB yesterday:

WASHINGTON—The U.S. bishops will engage in a canonical consultation regarding the cause for canonization of Dorothy Day, a pacifist and convert to Catholicism from New York City.

This consultation will take place during the bishops’ General Assembly November 12-15 in Baltimore.

I was not familiar with this particular aspect of the canonization process and don’t remember hearing about it related to other causes in the past.  I suppose that’s because it’s more often a local/regional affair, whereas Cardinal Dolan has chosen to make this one, for the bishops, a national one. The release explains:

The canonical consultation is a procedural step in the process toward canonization. Church law governing canonizations as found in the Vatican document Sanctorum Mater requires that the diocesan bishop promoting a canonization cause to consult at least with the regional bishops conference on the advisability of pursuing the cause. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and head of the Archdiocese of New York, is seeking the consultation of the full body of bishops.

The full text of the USCCB release, including a summary of Dorothy’s life and work, is here.

It’ll be a fine day when this canonization happens. If you’ve never read Dorothy’s diaries, they’re well worth the time. The words on those pages are arresting in the way they reveal, at the time same, her radiant sanctity and her undeniable humanity.

“Do the math”

At The American Conservative, Jeremy Beer uses satire to make an important point more effectively, even devastatingly, than I have seen it made or been able to make it myself all season:

I’m sick of these holier-than-thou purists who say they won’t vote for Romney because he was once pro-choice and still supports various exceptions, or because he once invested in a company that made money by incinerating aborted fetuses, or God knows what else. Some pro-lifers even want to drag completely unrelated issues into the conversation — “torture,” preemptive war, even economics!

If you’re pro-life, Catholic, and of a conservative disposition, isn’t it obvious that the Mormon/Randian ticket is the only choice? I mean, the only pragmatic choice? This is politics, people! It’s all about compromise and getting your hands dirty. And I, for one, refuse to compromise my pro-life beliefs and dirty my hands by refusing to compromise my pro-life beliefs and dirty my hands. Even if that dirt is really blood.

Anyway, just do the math. Practically speaking, fighting abortion — and being pro-life! — is all about overturning Roe v. Wade. Nothing else matters. So, just multiply the percentages attached to the following outcomes to see that you have a moral obligation to vote Romney/Ryan on November 6: Chance that Supreme Court justice retires/dies in next four years (15 percent), times chance that President Romney appoints a justice he believes would vote to overturn Roe (50 percent?), times chance that said justice would actually vote to overturn Roe (40 percent? cf Republican appointees Souter, Kennedy, O’Connor, Stevens, etc.), times chance that Court takes up a case that challenges Roe during term of new appointee (generously, 20 percent), times chance that new appointee remains key swing vote in said case when taken up (again, generously, 20 percent).

Dude, that’s a .12 percent chance that electing Romney would result in the end of Roe! How can you ignore that, you purists? Did you say something about Iran? Syria?

There you go again, changing the subject. Some of us prefer to be practical.

Kudos, Mr. Beer. H/T to Mark Shea.