By now, Catholics in New Orleans have at least heard about Venerable Henriette Delille, a free woman of color who founded the Sisters of the Holy Family. After all, her name is recited weekly at Mass in Our Family Prayer.
But, who was she? How did she become a nun and what did she accomplish?
Those questions and more were answered Nov. 16 at a symposium, “Celebrating the Life, Spirituality, Genealogy and Charism of Venerable Mere Henriette Delille” held at St. Mary’s Church on Chartres Street in the French Quarter.
In an opening prayer, Archbishop Gregory Aymond thanked God for Venerable Henriette, calling her a holy woman, a woman of courage and a prophet of her time. The archbishop asked God that those attending could live out their faith like her. He said she took “a leap of faith” to do God’s work for free people of color, the elderly, sick and dying.
Archbishop Aymond said the archdiocese is grateful for the courageous love and works of the Sisters of the Holy Family, the order Venerable Henriette founded in 1842.
Auxiliary Bishop Shelton Fabre explained the process of canonization of a saint. In the very early church, it was the prerogative of local bishops to hold up for devotion and as good faith examples in their communities the example of those who had suffered martyrdom for the faith. However, for many reasons, the more formal process of canonization began to develop in about the 11th century and canonization would become the responsibility of only the pope.
In 1983, Blessed Pope John Paul II revised the process of canonization to include beginning a cause for sainthood with a local bishop’s investigation and approval. If the investigation renders an affirmative decision, the information is forwarded to the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints in Rome and a candidate may receive the title “Servant of God.” After further investigation, if the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints decides to accept the cause and that individual has been declared to have lived a life of heroic virtue, he or she is declared “Venerable,” the stage where Henriette Delille is now.
A miracle is needed for the next step – beatification – which is when a candidate is given the formal title “Blessed” by the pope. When beatified, or declared Blessed, a person’s life can be held up as a model of faith in a local community. A beatified candidate may be venerated in the city, diocese or region where the person lived.
Goal: To be added to ‘canon’
The final step would be for the pope to formally add the person’s name to the “canon” of the church’s formal list of recognized saints, which is called “canonization,” and allows the person to be appropriately venerated by the universal church around the world. Canonization requires a second miracle – one that occurs after beatification.
“Hopefully Henriette Delille will be beatified and canonized soon so she can be formally venerated here locally and around the world,” Bishop Fabre said.
Bishop Fabre dispelled a misconception by some that saints are “worshipped” in the Catholic faith. Bishop Fabre said Catholics worship and adore God and God alone.
In contrast to worshipping God and God alone, Bishop Fabre stated that we do not worship saints, but have a devotion to saints.
“We ask them to pray for us, and we honor them and look to them as models of what we should be like as disciples of Jesus Christ,” he said.
Her genealogy researched
Several of Venerable Henriette’s relatives and scholars have researched her lineage. Relative Phil Latiolait from California has worked on the family genealogy for 10 years and presented a video of his discoveries called “Family Journey.”
Barbara Trevigne, the official biographer of Marie Laveau and a lecturer on Creoles as well as a relative of Venerable Henriette, also relayed connections she’s uncovered between Marie Laveau’s family, local benefactor Thomy Lafon and Venerable Henriette.
Religious of the Sacred Heart Sister Mary Blish, archivist for her order in New Orleans, revealed how her order’s foundress, St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, saw prejudice against “negroes” in the 1830s and how her community tried to rectify that by educating “colored people” one day a week. The Sacred Heart sisters also asked a local bishop to allow two sisters in New Orleans to help the fledging Sisters of the Holy Family.
Around 1850, Josephine Charles, Juliette Gaudin and Henriette Delille were sent to Convent, La., to experience religious life by living with the nuns running the Academy of St. Michael. Benedictine Father Cyprian Davis thinks Henriette and her companions received enough religious formation there to receive vows as religious. The title of their order was approved. Research helped Sister Blish conclude that the Sisters of the Holy Family ran the first negro Catholic school in Louisiana after the civil war, Sister Blish said.
Sister of Charity Sister Louise Grundish gave a presentation on “Making History While Doing Social Justice.” She detailed how her foundress, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, instructed her sisters to do whatever they could to help the Sisters of the Holy Family educate black children and further their own education. A 30-year relationship between the two orders began when, in 1921, six Sisters of Charity traveled to New Orleans to learn how they could assist.
“We thought we were helping the Sisters of the Holy Family, and we did,” Sister Louise said. “We helped so many sisters receive their normal certificates (to teach).”
Ties that bind
Even after travels ceased to New Orleans, the Sisters of Charity transferred tuition money for Sisters of the Holy Family to attend college.
“This relationship has not been severed,” Sister Louise said. “When Katrina came, it was like someone in our family was hurt,’’ adding how they boxed up winter coats and sent them to New Orleans.
Dr. Joan Gaulene, archivist for the Jesuits New Orleans province, revealed a connection with the Sisters of the Holy Family while researching Loyola University’s 100th anniversary.
In her presentation, “Side-Stepping the System,” she mentioned how Loyola – run by the Jesuits – and the Sisters of Charity helped Sisters of the Holy Family earn teaching degrees even when blacks were barred from attending universities. When Louisiana required that teachers be certified and college credits were expected in 1921, Archbishop John Shaw worked with the Sisters of the Charity in Pennsylvania to open a normal school at the Sisters of the Holy Family Motherhouse each summer.
Teacher training provided
The Sisters of Charity would provide training for the Sisters of the Holy Family, while the Sacred Heart sisters would house the Sisters of Charity. Loyola University, which already gave credits to religious and lay teachers, would give credits toward certification. The code name for the school was “Loyola No. 2” and it continued for 12 years.
In 1924, 10 Sisters of the Holy Family passed the state board tests and received certificates. By 1951, when state regulations on black students attending college loosened, the Sisters of the Holy Family became the first registered African-American students on Loyola University’s campus.
Dr. Edward Brett, who wrote “A Continuance of the Charism: The Sisters of the Holy Family in Dangriga, Belize,” traced the order’s opening and continuing to run a school in Belize. Belize Bishop Salvatore di Prieto extended an invitation to the nuns in 1898.
“Sisters of the Holy Family were the first Catholic, African-American missionaries in history,” Brett said. “That’s quite an honor.”
The evening ended with singing by the choirs of St. Augustine and St. Katharine Drexel parishes. The event served to reveal details of Venerable Henriette’s life, said Sister of the Holy Family Eva Regina Martin, congregational leader, who coordinated the event.
“We wanted to answer some questions of the public, to let people know who she really is,” she said. “I wanted people to know how the sisters lived out their lives and how helpful people were to them.”
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.