This 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 also 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.)