Henriette Delille

Henriette Delille

Henriette Delille has been called “The Rebellious Saint.” Born in 1813 in New Orleans, Henriette was born a free creole woman of color. Her mother was in the Placage system, a common choice for mixed-race women, as a way to have a comfortable life for themselves and their children. Henriette was groomed to do the same and live as the mistress or common-law wife of a white, wealthy man. This she did for several years. She birthed two sons, both of whom died as small children; but this was not how Henriette wanted to live. At the time of her confirmation, then in her early twenties, Henriette declared her intent to live a holy life. She rejected and became an outspoken opponent of the Placage system. Her family was not happy. This decision added to the conflict caused when Henriette, age 14 and educated, helped teach in a local Catholic school and began to visit the sick. This did not help the family’s social standing.

In the census of 1830, the Delille family registered as “white,” as the family was very light skinned. Henriette refused to go along with this and proclaimed the truth. Her brother was angry. He believed this action and her work with poor persons of color and enslaved people were detrimental to his business success. The family had little to do with her.

Henriette and several friends, all intelligent and literate Black women, formed a lay confraternity promising to live holy lives and to care for each other and their people. They reached out to impoverished older women, probably former slaves, who lived in the house next door. This began their ministry. They established the first Catholic home for the elderly in the United States. Henriette felt called to life as a woman religious. Here, too, she met opposition. She persevered and founded the Sisters of the Holy Family.

These women were devoted to those at the very bottom of the antebellum South. They determined to educate the most destitute — free persons of color and slaves. They had to be careful. It was illegal to teach enslaved people in Louisiana and, in those pre-Civil War times, lawmakers passed laws that limited the activities of slaves and free people of color. The Sisters taught free adults and children during daylight and enslaved people at night.

Henriette spread the Gospel across society. To strengthen her work, she invited women who, like herself, were being groomed into the Placage system, to join her congregation. The Sisters purchased a building where dances and other events to introduce beautiful mixed-race women to white men were held. Henriette transformed the space into a school, convent, and chapel. Clearly, it was a bold attack on the prerogatives of the powerful male-dominated society of the day.

Life was not easy for Henriette. Her heart was with the poor and she faced social, political, and financial opposition. In all things, Henriette turned to prayer. At the time of her confirmation, she wrote in the front of her prayer book, “I believe in God. I hope in God. I love. I want to live and die for God.” This was her strength and she often needed Divine strength. At age 49, Henriette Delille died. Her friends said she was worn out from her life of service, poverty, and hard work. The last lines of her obituary sum up her life. “For the love of Jesus Christ, she made herself the humble, devout servant of slaves.”

Henriette Delille’s cause for canonization was endorsed unanimously in 1997 by the United States Bishops. Pope Benedict XVI approved her heroic virtue and named her “Venerable” on March 27, 2010. She was the first African American whose cause for canonization was opened officially by the Catholic Church.