Since there have zillions of articles concerning Mother Henriette Delille,
I will give each as I have read them and hope that someone can make some
sense of all of the various stories about Mother Delille's ethnic background
since it would seem that each story has great distortion.
This information has not changed - Thank God! Mother Delille was born
in 1812 and died in 1862. Hurray!!
Now in an article written in the Josephite Harvest,
dated September 1998, three years ago this month, written by Michelly
B. Merrick, who stated that she knew little about the Sisters of the Holy
Family and even less about their foundress, Mother Delille. She stated
that she read "Henriette Delille: Free Woman of Color" by Sr.
Audrey Marie Detiege, SSF, and "Henriette Delille: Servant of Slaves"
by Virginia Meacham Gould and Charles E. Nolan.
She contacted the Sisters
of the Holy Family who gave her plenty information. The she got in touch
with St. Mary's Academy in New Orleans, founded in 1881 by the Sisters
of the Holy Family. It was the first secondary school for African-American
girls in New Orleans. She spoke to nine graduates from St. Mary's who
had transplanted themselves in Baltimore, Maryland. They told her everything
she wanted to know about "this woman whose legacy continues 135 years
after her death".
Well, let's see what they told her.
The first was that she was a descendant of slaves, not exactly true since
she was also a descendant of French and Spanish ancestors who were not
slaves and to attest to that she had at a Mass in her Honor at St. Agatha's
Church in Los Angeles, many of her white French Creole relatives -
father, Jean Baptiste Delille Sarpy (A Spanish aristocrat) and her mother,
Marie Joseph (Pouponne) Dias, Spanish and African; grandfather, Hughes
Charles Honore Olivier, of Noble French birth; and other relatives of
French, Spanish, Indian, Italian and African origin -
DeCuir, Boutte, and Pinta; most of the Cane River or Isle Breville Creole
People - Metoyers, Dubreuils, Rachals, et al and many Creole people too
numerous to mention. Therefore it would follow that she was just not a
descendant of slaves and a "Native-born African-American" as
it is also written in stories about her.
Ms. Merrick stated that she was born in 1812 into
a prosperous and influential New Orleans family. She forgot to mention
that it was a Creole family in New Orleans, just 9 years after the French
Louisiana Territory was sold by the French government to the United States.
It was mentioned that her mother was "une femme de couleur libre"
and not that this woman was a Creole by virtue of the fact that all people
who were born native to Louisiana were considered Creoles by virtue of
the meaning of the word at that time, even pure Africans.
It would seem
that the story goes that Marie Joseph was the place of Delille Sarpy because
of the fact that Creoles and Whites by law were unable to marry each other.
But did that mean that an offspring, according to Ms. Merrick, of an interracial
union had to be identified as the mother and not take into consideration
her father's ethnicity. Because that was what her mother was (Spanish-Creole).
So the story goes that Henriette was baptized and
confirmed in the church that was to become St. Louis Cathedral, and she
grew up on Burgundy Street in the French Quarter, (where all Creoles and
their descendants lived). Her education (as a member of the quadroon class)
included French literature (why not African literature if in fact she
was African??) music appreciation and dance lessons.
Her mother taught
her nursing skills and how to prepare medicines from herbs. In spite of
the training, Henriette was not to follow the lifestyle of her peers.
Sr. Detiege wrote that Henriette's basic conflict facing her - "it
was the impropriety of the customs of the times that produced this free
woman of color who was caught between the two worlds of bondage and freedom
being a part of each class yet belonging to neither". That was a
mistreatment when in fact she was a "free woman of color". She
in fact belonged to that class and besides she was a Creole.
The story goes on wherein Henriette met Sr. St.
Marthe, a member of the French religious order, Dames Hospitalier, who
impressed her with her words of faith and acts of charity. By 1829, at
the age of 17, Henriette joined Juliette Gaudin, a Haitian, and Josephine
Charles as they began efforts to evangelize New Orleans slaves and free
people of color. A few years later, Henriette and her friends formed the
Congregation of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin
This was New Orleans' first confraternity of women
of color. Service to the sick, the infirm and the poor was their primary
By 1840, Bishop Antoine Blanc recognized their contributions
and informed papal officials that this group of "pious women occupied
in pious work" was active in the city, "assisting the sick,
caring for the dying, teaching the young." As a result of Bishop
Blanc's letter, the community formed an affiliation with the Solidarity
of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Rome.
Tribute to Henriette Delille
Once cannonized, Henriette Delille will have the distinction of being the first saint to have been born in New Orleans.
She was born in 1812, and at a young age, she formed a small group of devoted women who dedicated themselves to the service of slave children, the elderly, and the poor.
This group eventually became the Sisters of the Holy Family Order. The Order still exists today in Louisiana, Texas, Washington, D.C., Tennessee, Belize, Central America, and Benin City, West Africa. Henriette died in 1862 at the age of 50.
These two new stained glass windows appear in St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans. They were designed and fabricated by Ruth Goliwas, a New Orleans artist.
The Sisters of the Holy Family trace their origins a religious community back to November 21, 1842 even though the Church
hierarchy did not recognize them as a formal religious community until
years later. It was in 1842 that Fr. Etienne Rousselon, St Louis Cathedral
rector and Holy Family supporter, rented a house on Bayou Road for the
community's ministry center.
This marked the beginning of community life for
Henriette and her companions. After much controversy and aided by others
who saw her worth, in 1851 Henriette located her community in the Bayou
Road house she purchased with her inheritance. The Religious of the Sacred
Heart in Convent, La. Provided Henriette, Juliette and Josephine spiritual
formation and experience in formal religious community living.
On November 21, 1852, Henriette Delille, Juliette
Gaudin and Josephine Charles took private vows. They vowed to Vicar General
Rousselon and Archbishop Blanc to devote all they had of earthly means
to establish an order for the education of young ladies of color, and
the success and relief of poor old colored people and orphan girls.
Early account of the community's life and ministry
tell of the hardships the nuns experienced . Henriette's own family disowned
her. The sisters prospered through many hardships due to racism and epidemics
of the yellow fever. The order received little or no attention until Mother
Delille's death of November 16, 1862 at the age of fifty.
Mother Delille'e obituary stated, "Last Monday
here died one of those women whose obscure and retired life has nothing
remarkable in the eyes of the world, but it is full of merit before God."
When she was only 24 years old, living in a complex
society and a hedonistic era, Henriette wrote in her prayer book, "I
believe in God. I hope in God. I love and I want to live and die for God."
In November 1997, the U. S. Bishops unanimously
supported the introduction of the cause of Mother Delille's beatification.
Archbishop Francis B. Schultz of New Orleans presented the proposal stating,
"For the love of Jesus Christ, (Mother Henriette) made herself the
humble servant of slaves."
I concur with all of the above written by Ms. Merrick
except the fact that Mother Henriette Delille was and still is a Creole
of New Orleans, possessing African- American, born on U. S. soil, but
the first Creole-American to be placed up for Sainthood and who will,
with God's blessing, become the first Creole-American to become a Saint
in the Catholic Church.
In Ms. Merrick's article she wrote that the famous
Rudolph Desdunes, (who was no doubt about it a Creole) in his book, "Our
People and Our History" described Mother Delille as one of the most
remarkable women of "African descent" of the century. Note that
his book was dedicated to the Creole Americans of his time who were famous
and I seriously doubt that he would have described her ethnicity as such.
(P.S.) I will take a special trip to read this book and make a copy of
At the Mass which was held in the honor of Mother
Delille's canonization process, all brochures described her as "
a descendant of slaves - a native born African-American." It would
seem that in the year 2001, the ONE-DROP POLICY of the American yesteryear
is still alive and well in America, even though we have more interracial
unions than ever in history and the U.S. Census has agreed that a person
is whomever he / she states that she is with the ability to check all
of the racial categories.