NEW ORLEANS—Dr. Charles Nolan, the nationally recognized archivist of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, is trained to be coolly dispassionate about the detective work he and other researchers are conducting into the life of Mother Henriette Delille, a descendant of slaves who founded a pre-Civil War religious community for black women in New Orleans called the Sisters of the Holy Family.
But when U.S. bishops voted unanimously last fall to endorse “the appropriateness and timeliness” of Mother Henriette's cause for sainthood, it was as though they had delivered a jolt of electricity to the team of historians charged with piecing together the story of an obscure free woman of color who was teaching and caring for slaves more than two decades before the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
“I guess what's so striking is that if you think of all of the remarkable people who have been a part of the Church in Louisiana—all of the military leaders, bishops, archbishops, wonderful sisters, and remarkable laymen and lawyers—of all these people she is the first native Louisianian we hold up as a model of sanctity,” Nolan said.
“It is this humble woman—someone we did not know a whole lot about, someone who many people in her own day didn't know a lot about—who is suddenly held up as the embodiment of all that we aspire to.... That, in itself, is remarkable.”
SERVANT OF SLAVES
Mother Henriette died Nov. 16, 1862, six months after Union troops occupied New Orleans and two months before President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves. She is believed to have been 50 when she died, leaving behind a community of a dozen sisters. Her obituary on the front page of Propagateur Catholique, the archdiocesan newspaper, read: “The crowd gathered for her funeral testified by its sorrow how keenly felt was the loss of her who for the love of Christ had made herself the humble servant of slaves.”
At the time of Henriette's birth there were 17,000 free persons of color living in New Orleans. These were racially mixed descendants of early French, Spanish, and African residents of colonial Louisiana who, despite severe legal restrictions, could hold entrepreneurial jobs and own property. Many even held slaves. In fact, for a brief time in 1834, Henriette owned a slave named Polly. Benedictine Father Cyprian Davis, who is writing the comprehensive scholarly biography of Henriette required for the sainthood cause, discovered the documentation in family financial records.
“One of the possibilities is that she bought the slave to protect her from being sent out of New Orleans, which was the law at the time,” Nolan said. “That's really one of the puzzles that we have not fully explored. During those times, many religious and priests owned slaves. The whole theology of the times was that you could not challenge the existing order. Our notion of civil disobedience was not current. The whole thing is so complex. We don't want to explain it away. We want to try to understand it.”
What is clear is that in the 1840s, Henriette displayed the independence—from family and societal tradition—that led her to form and inspire a religious community that reached out to the lowest caste of society. Her great-great grandparents were the African slave Nanette, and Claude Joseph Dubreuil Villars, a white aristocrat and one of the most important colonists in Louisiana history. He constructed the first levees on the Mississippi River, and in 1753, built the Old Ursuline Convent, the oldest existing building in New Orleans. Researchers know that Henriette's mother was Marie Joseph Diaz, a free woman of color, but the identity of her father is unclear. He likely was either Juan Bonilla, a Cuban, or Jean Delille, her brother's father.
“Whoever her father was, he didn't do anything for Henriette,” according to Dr. Virginia Gould, a nationally known scholar who is assisting with the research part of the story. “Several generations of women in that family survived in a very harsh world and became independent. That is one of the great gifts they passed down to Henriette. But she took that [independence] in a whole different direction.”
Researchers believe Henriette was educated at a school for free women of color run by Marthe Fortiere, who had come to New Orleans from France to work with the Ursuline Sisters before branching off in 1823 to open her own school. Tuition was between $1.50 and $5.00 a month—a hefty sum.
Much of the information about the early history of the Sisters of the Holy Family comes from a remarkable journal of Mother Bernard Deggs (1846-1896), who entered the community in 1873 and who lived with two of its cofounders, Juliette Gaudin and Josephine Charles.
Almost no one knew of the journal's existence in the community's archives until Sister Audrey Detiege, who died in 1989, rediscovered it and used it as the basis for research she was doing on the community.
“She was the one who almost single-handedly rediscovered Henriette Delille,” maintained Nolan. “Part of the folklore was that Deggs died of tuberculosis and some of the Sisters were afraid that the TB germs might still be in the manuscript.”
SWEET WATER FOR DINNER
The Deggs journal speaks evocatively of times when the sisters had so little money and food that they drank sweetened water at night to dull their hunger pangs.
“Some almost starved to death,” Gould said. “Clearly, their mission to aid the poor was an overwhelming one.”
Although 1842 is given as the official date of the community's founding, Nolan believes Henriette actually was the driving force behind the Congregation of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was founded in 1836. Aconstitution—written in phonetic French, which points to Henriette's possible authorship—was discovered in the middle of a financial journal in the Holy Family archives. The mission of this group of free women of color was strikingly similar: to serve the poor and offer religious instruction to slaves. Nolan believes this group later evolved into the Sisters of the Holy Family.
Researchers have found only a few shreds of Henriette's personal writing, but her 1836 inscription in a prayerbook is powerful for its strikingly simple catechism: “I believe in God. I hope in God. I love and I want to live and die for God.”
She is believed to have received some form of spiritual formation with the Sacred Heart Sisters at St. Michael's in Convent, La. Their motto, “One Heart, One Soul,” was the motto of the Sisters of the Presentation.
The Louisiana legislature made it quite clear what fate would befall anyone who aided a slave's education: an 1830 law made it illegal for slaves to be taught to read or write but the Deggs journal told of how Henriette would gather children into church and teach them Bible stories through songs and dramatization. She and her sisters would also walk up and down the levees of the Mississippi River to conduct roving catechism classes.
Nolan said city leaders probably were caught off guard by the work Henriette and her sisters were doing.
“These women sort of blind-sided them,” he said. “They weren't quite sure what to do with them. During Henriette's life, the sisters were never listed as a religious community in the Catholic directory. At the same time, the Church realized that these were the people who were accomplishing one of the Church's main missions. They needed these women.”
Sister Sylvia said the women filled a need in the Church that otherwise would have gone unmet, “kind of the redemption for the Catholic Church and within the Catholic Church because of its benign neglect of the slaves.”
In the 1840s, Henriette opened a home to care for the elderly, and she later purchased another home with her own money that served as a home for the community and center for catechetical instruction of slaves and free people of color. The community found inventive ways to keep money coming in, sponsoring a lottery and fairs.
At the end of the Civil War—three years after Mother Henriette's death—only five sisters remained with the community because of fears of their parents that the economic suffering would be too great. The U.S. bishops also met to decide what pastoral approach would be taken with the emancipated slaves.
“It's a source of great criticism that the bishops refused to adopt a national policy and basically let every diocese do what it could,” Nolan said.
A SAINT FOR NEW ORLEANS?
His team sees few parallels between the sainthood causes of Mother Henriette and Pierre Toussaint in New York, simply because so much more documentation exists about Toussaint. Toussaint (1766-1853), a black slave from Haiti, won his freedom, became a successful businessman, served the poor, and even came to the financial rescue of his former master's family.
Piecing together information about Mother Henriette has been much more difficult. Why has it taken so long for the sainthood cause to move forward?
Said Mother Rose de Lima Hazeur, former superior of the Sisters of the Holy Family: “The Church would not have been interested in the process of canonization of a black woman before 1960. It would have been a waste of time even to consider it.”
Now the U.S. bishops have placed the issue squarely on the front burner, and the local team is ready. They hope to complete the biography by the end of 1998, and hope to have her declared venerable by 2000.
“It must happen, it must,” said Sister Sylvia.
“This has energized us because it's no longer just the sisters' cause—it's the Church's cause,” Nolan said. “We now have an obligation to respond to what the Church has told us and expects of us. The atmosphere has changed enough that the first person the Church here in Louisiana is proposing for sainthood is an African-American woman. That is remarkable in itself.”
After the formal biography is submitted, the Vatican will appoint historians and theologians to review it for thoroughness and accuracy. If everything is in order, then a study must be written on the virtues of Henriette. If the Congregation for the Cause of Saints and the Pope approve, then she could be called “Venerable.”
“[Then] the Church places the material aside and stands back and asks God for a sign that their decision has been a correct one,” said Oblate Father James FitzPatrick, the postulator general for the cause. “And that sign is a miracle.”
Cardinal Frances Arinze, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialouge, has told Sister Sylvia, that the unique nature of Mother Henriette's cause—she would be the first U.S. born African-American saint—might influence Pope John Paul II to speed the process.
“The Holy Father might move a cause like that from number 400 to number four because of the uniqueness she represents,” Sister Sylvia said. “That's why it is so urgent to get the biography in. This is our time. The Pope has said he is very interested in canonizing saints in countries where there are few saints—and the United States is one of those countries.”
“I think for African-Americans in particular the time is very right that one of our own can be elevated to sainthood. We know that she is a saint, but that the universal Church publicly proclaims her as one is significant. Her canonization would be saying God is pleased with us.”
Peter Finney writes from New Orleans.