Tricentennial Thursday: City’s ‘Saintsational Seven’ made a big difference

By Beth Donze, Clarion Herald

New Orleans is steeped in saints, but local Catholics might be hard-pressed to name more than a handful of them.

Seven individuals with New Orleans connections – six women and one man – are either recognized saints or on the road to sainthood: St. Frances Xavier Cabrini; St. Katharine Drexel; St. Rose Philippine Duchesne; Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos; Venerable Cornelia Connelly; Venerable Henriette Delille; and Margaret Haughery.

Can walk in saints’ footsteps

“There’s so much Catholic history in the French Quarter alone,” noted Dr. Emilie Leumas, archivist for the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

“As you walk, you are able to see the building at 824 Dumaine St. (later St. Louis Cathedral School), which was the original Sacred Heart School founded by St. Rose (Duchesne). Walk to the Bourbon Orleans Hotel, and you’ll see its connection to Henriette Delille and how the site was once used as the convent of the Sisters of the Holy Family.”

Uptown sites connected with Blessed Seelos and Haughery, the latter who dedicated her life to New Orleans’ orphans, are a short bus or streetcar ride away, Leumas added.

Here is a peek at the “Saintsational Seven”:

  • St. Katharine Drexel, the tenacious foundress of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, dedicated her $14 million inheritance to the establishment of schools for the education of black and Native Americans, a legacy that includes Xavier University of Louisiana, Xavier Prep (now St. Katharine Drexel Prep) and Blessed Sacrament School.
  • St. Frances Cabrini founded the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart with a main ministry of helping poor children through schools and hospitals. Mother Cabrini’s first local convent-school, founded to educate the Lower French Quarter’s influx of poor Italian immigrants, was located at 817 St. Philip St. Her second orphanage, founded in 1905 at 3400 Esplanade Ave., is located on the campus of the all-girls’ high school that bears her name.

“When you drive down Esplanade, you don’t realize that the part of Cabrini (High School) that faces Esplanade was the orphanage,” said Leumas, noting that the building’s façade is partly hidden behind oak trees.

  • French-born St. Rose Philippine Duchesne sailed to New Orleans in 1818 with four other sisters to bring the Society of the Sacred Heart to the UnitedStates. St. Rose, who already had demonstrated her deep Catholic faith by teaching homeless children, caring for the poor and sick and aiding underground members of the clergy during the French Revolution, went on to establish six communities within 10 years. Her Louisiana legacy includes Sacred Heart schools in Grand Coteau, Natchitoches, Baton Rouge, Convent and on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans (known by alumnae as The Rosary).
  • Venerable Cornelia Connelly, a native of Philadelphia, had a desire to help children that led her to found the Society of the Holy Child Jesus in England in 1846. Although they spent little time in New Orleans, Presbyterian-raised Connelly and her husband Pierce, an Episcopal minister, experienced a significant moment in their faith journeys here in the city. They were inspired to convert to Catholicism after attending the 1835 Ordination Mass of New Orleans Bishop (later Archbishop) Antoine Blanc. Cornelia was received into the church that same year at St. Louis Cathedral.

When Cornelia discerned a calling to become a religious sister and Pierce was ordained a Catholic priest, the couple legally separated and enrolled their three children in boarding school. Pierce ultimately left the priesthood, but when his former wife refused to cast a

side her vows, he sued Cornelia in an English court for custody of their children.

The archdiocesan archives contain a letter from Cornelia urging her spiritual advisor, Archbishop Blanc, to pray for her oldest son, whom she never saw again.

Residential trio

Three members of this saintly group resided and ministered in New Orleans in more than a visitor’s capacity: Venerable Henriette Delille, Margaret Haughery and Blessed Francis Seelos.

Mother Henriette and Haughery, who were born a year apart, worked contemporaneously to help disadvantaged children in two different parts of New Orleans: Mother Henriette worked in the French Quarter and Treme, evangelizing and caring for enslaved and free people of color, while the Irish-born Haughery toiled in the city’s American sector, ultimately donating more than $600,000 from her businesses to fund New Orleans orphanages.

“Both of them were women living in a man’s world in an antebellum time period – going outside of what the traditional role of women was in New Orleans – to do something good for children,” Leumas observed.

  • Mother Henriette, the sole New Orleanian of the saintly septet, founded the Sisters of the Holy Family – the United States’ first community of African-American sisters – in 1842, well before it was legal for women of color to form such a group.

Mother Henriette’s fledgling role as a spiritual advisor and catechist to enslaved and free people of color is borne out in a 1837-45 baptismal registry maintained by the Ursuline Sisters, who operated a school in the city’s Holy Cross neighborhood at the time. In that document, Henriette is listed as the godmother of Marie Therese Dagon.

Henriette’s name also appears in a St. Mary’s Italian Church wedding registrythat was specifically maintained for “people of color.” Her signature documents her witnessing of the1838 wedding of a free man of color and an enslaved woman named Loize (the entry also includes the signature of the bride’s “owner,” a Mr. L. Lacour).

A photo from 1899, taken 37 years after Mother Henriette’s death, shows that more than 40 Sisters of the Holy Family were serving their community’s convent-school at 717 Orleans St. (the current site of the Bourbon Orleans Hotel). There currently are about 70 Sisters of the Holy Family residing in New Orleans. The community’s 175-year-old legacy includes Lafon Nursing Facility, founded in 1841; St. Mary’s Academy; and mission schools in Belize and Nigeria. The motherhouse fronts St. Mary’s campus on Chef Menteur Highway in New Orleans East.

  • Haughery, whose cause for sainthood is still in the investigatory stages, was widowed and bereaved of her only child shortly after immigrating to New Orleans in 1835. Haughery was so impressed with the work of the Sisters of Charity at the Poydras Orphan Asylum, she offered her services to the sisters in exchange for room and board. She purchased a single cow to help feed the children.

“Then she buys more cows and (ultimately) owns a dairy of 40 cows. Later on, she operates a bakery,” Leumas said, alluding to business receipts in the archdiocesan archives dating from the mid-19th century.

“Margaret continued to do nothing but give all of the profits and all of the food to the orphanage,” Leumas said. “She lived very poor her whole life, and when she died, all of the monies were divided among seven orphanages, with no requirement that it be Catholic.”

Haughery was so beloved among New Orleanians, she was given a state funeral upon her death in 1882. A statue was erected in her honor in 1884, becoming only the second statue of a woman to be erected in the United States.

  • Blessed Seelos, a Redemptorist priest born in Germany, was known as the “Cheerful Ascetic” who spent nearly all of his ordained life as a parish-based and missionary preacher in the United States. After more than 40 years of selfless service, Father Seelos was assigned to New Orleans in 1866 to serve as pastor of St. Mary’s Assumption Church. Less than a year after arriving in the city, Father Seelos contracted yellow fever through his dedicated ministry to the sick. He died on Oct. 4, 1867, at age 48 and was beatified by St. John Paul II in 2000.

Click here to view the Clarion Herald flipbook, “River of Faith: 300 Years as a New Orleans Catholic Community – 1718-2018”

Beth Donze can be reached at bdonze@clarionherald.org.

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