Henriette DeLille

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Henriette Díaz DeLille

Born(1813-03-11)March 11, 1813
New Orleans, Louisiana, United States
DiedNovember 17, 1862(1862-11-17) (aged 49)
New Orleans, Louisiana, United States
Venerated inRoman Catholic Church
PatronageRacial equality, Gender equality, Social equality, Educational equity, Health equity, Equanimity

Mother Henriette Díaz DeLille (March 11, 1813[1] – November 16, 1862) was a mixed-race Louisiana Creole of color Catholic nun from New Orleans who founded the Sisters of the Holy Family in 1836 and served as their first Mother Superior.

Composed of free women of color, the order provided nursing care and a home for orphans, later establishing schools as well. They taught enslaved children when such education was prohibited by law.[2]

In 1988 the order formally opened the cause with the Holy See of the canonization of Henriette DeLille. In 2010 Pope Benedict XVI declared DeLille to be Venerable. A miracle attributed to her intercession was approved by a medical board in 2013, advancing her cause.


Early life[edit]

Henriette DeLille was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on Thursday, March 11, 1813.[1] Her mother, Marie-Josèphe "Pouponne" Díaz, was a free woman of color of New Orleans. Her father Jean-Baptiste Lille Sarpy (var. de Lille) was born about 1758 in Fumel, Lot-et-Garonne, France.[3] Their union was a common-law marriage typical of the contemporary plaçage system.[4] She had a brother, Jean DeLille, and other siblings.

Their maternal grandparents were Juan José (var. Jean-Joseph) Díaz, a Spanish merchant, and Henriette (Dubreuil) Laveau, a Créole of color. Their paternal grandparents were Charles Sarpy and Susanne Trenty, both natives of Fumel, France.[5] Her maternal great-grandmother is said to be Cécile Marthe Basile Dubreuil, a woman of color considered to be a daughter of Claude Villars Dubreuil, born in 1716, who immigrated to Louisiana from France. Henriette and her family lived in the French Quarter, not far from St. Louis Cathedral.

Trained by her mother in French literature, music, and dancing, Henriette was groomed to find a white, wealthy male partner in the plaçage system, which was a type of common-law marriage.[6] Her mother also taught her nursing skills and how to prepare medicines from herbs. As a young mixed-race woman, under her mother's watchful eye, Henriette attended many quadroon balls, a chief element of their social world. The balls were attended by creole, free women of color, and creole white men looking for young women as plaçage partners.

Raised as Roman Catholic in the French tradition, DeLille was drawn instead to a strong religious belief in the Catholic Church's teaching and resisted the life her mother suggested. She became an outspoken opponent of plaçage, in which generally young, French or European-American men had extended relationships or common-law marriages with free women of color. The men often later married "white" European-American women after they were established financially. The men entered into contracts with the mothers of the young women of color, promising support and sometimes education of their mixed-race children, as well as financial settlements. In cases where a young woman was enslaved, the man might free her and their children. Some men maintained a relationship with a woman of color after marriage, while others remained bachelors. DeLille believed the system was a violation of the Catholic sacrament of marriage.

Henriette was influenced by Sister Marthe Fontier, who had opened a school in New Orleans for girls of color. In 1827, at the age of 14, the well-educated Henriette began teaching at the local Catholic school. Over the next several years, her devotion to caring for and educating the poor grew, causing conflict with her mother.

DeLille was confirmed in 1834.

During documentation of the sainthood cause for DeLille, the congregation found funeral records from the 1820s "that suggested that as a teenager, she may have given birth to two sons, each named Henry Bocno. Both boys died at a young age."[2] (It was customary to name the first son after the father. If the child died, the next male born would be given the father's name.)

The archdiocesan archivist Charles Nolan said in 2005 that, even if DeLille "had given birth to two children out of wedlock, it happened two years before her confirmation in 1834."[2] Her biographer, Benedictine Father Cyprian Davis, said that her confirmation showed her increased commitment to God, as did her life in the following years.[2]

Sisters of the Holy Family[edit]


In 1835, DeLille's mother Marie-Josèphe suffered a nervous breakdown. Later that year, the court declared her incompetent and granted DeLille control of her mother's assets. After providing for her mother's care, DeLille sold all her remaining property.

In 1836 she used the sale proceeds to found a small unrecognized congregation or order of nuns, which she named as the Sisters of the Presentation. The original members consisted of DeLille, seven other young Créole women, and a young French woman. They cared for the sick, helped the poor, and instructed free and enslaved children and adults. They took into their home some older women who needed more than visitation and thereby opened America's first Catholic home for the elderly.[7]

Her brother Jean DeLille was strongly opposed to her activities. Like other family members, he could pass for white. The DeLille children were octoroons, seven-eighths European or white in ancestry. He felt that his sister's activities within the Créole community exposed his partial African ancestry to his white associates.

Estranged from Henriette, Jean DeLille moved with his wife and children away from New Orleans to a small Créole of color community in Iberia Parish, Louisiana, called La Côte-aux-Puces (Flea Coast). The agricultural area is now known as Grand Marais.[8] It is the area on the Bayou Teche between present-day Olivier, Louisiana, to below Jeanerette, Louisiana.

Recognition, Sisters of the Holy Family[edit]

In 1837, Father Etienne Rousselon of New Orleans secured the new congregation's formal recognition from the Holy See. DeLille took the title of Mother in the order. In 1842, the congregation changed its name to the Sisters of the Holy Family.[7] Henriette DeLille continued a life of service to the poor of New Orleans.

She died in 1862 at the age of 49, during the American Civil War, when the city was occupied by Union troops. Friends attributed her death to a life of service, poverty, and hard work.

At the time of DeLille's death, on Sunday, November 16, 1862, the order had 12 members.[9] The sisters were noteworthy for their care of the sick and the dying during the yellow fever epidemics that struck New Orleans in 1853 and 1897.[7]

By 1909, the order had grown to 150 members; it operated parochial schools in New Orleans that served 1,300 students. In this period, the state of Louisiana had disenfranchised most African Americans by raising barriers to voter registration, and it imposed legal segregation of public facilities, including schools. By 1950, membership in the order peaked at 400.

The order today[edit]

The Sisters of the Holy Family remain active today. Its 96 members serve the poor by operating free schools for children, nursing homes, and retirement homes in New Orleans and Shreveport, Louisiana; Washington, D.C; Galveston, Texas; Little Rock, Arkansas; and California in the United States; and a mission in Belize.

Death and will[edit]

DeLille died in 1862 with a reputation of holiness.

In her will she freed a slave that she owned named Betsy.[10]


The city of New Orleans named a street after her in 2011.

In 1988 her order opened the cause for her canonization with the Holy See. She became "the first United States native-born African American whose cause for canonization has been officially opened by the Catholic Church." [7] Her cause was endorsed "unanimously" in 1997 by the United States Catholic bishops. Pope Benedict XVI approved her heroic virtues and named her Venerable on March 27, 2010. The Congregation for the Causes of Saints gave its formal assent on June 22, 2010, for the commencement of the cause of beatification with the declaration of "nihil obstat" (nothing against). DeLille was given the title of Servant of God.[2]

A claimed miracle by her intercession was being investigated in 2005[2] and by 2017 other miracles attributed to her were under medical scrutiny.[11]

Film treatment[edit]


  1. ^ a b African American Registry (AAREG); "Henriette Delille made her spirituality work"
  2. ^ a b c d e f "Pope brings African-American foundress one step closer to sainthood". Archdiocese of Baltimore. 2012-01-19. Retrieved 2020-09-24.
  3. ^ Burial act for "J. Bt. Lille Sarpy, aged about 77 years, who died the evening before; a native of Fumelles, Department of Lot-et-Garonne," St. François Church Register 15, entry 1836:46, Natchitoches, Louisiana.
  4. ^ M. Boniface Adams, "The Gift of Religious Leadership: Henriette DeLille and the Foundation of the Holy Family Sisters," in Glenn R. Conrad, ed., Cross, Crozier, and Crucible: A Volume Celebrating the Bicentennial of a Catholic Diocese in Louisiana (New Orleans: The Archdiocese in cooperation with the Center for Louisiana Studies, 1993), 360-74.
  5. ^ Archdiocese of New Orleans Sacramental Records (New Orleans: The Diocese, 1991), 6:247; also Alice Daly Forsyth, Louisiana Marriages: A Collection of Marriage Records from the St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans during the Spanish Regime and the Early American Period, 1784-1806 (New Orleans: Polyanthos, 1977), 37; this marriage record identifies Charles Sarpy and Susanne Trenty as natives of Fumel also.
  6. ^ "Henriette DeLille and the Sisters of the Holy Family". Notable Black American Women. Gale. 20 December 1992. Retrieved 1 March 2015.
  7. ^ a b c d "Henriette Delille". www.sistersoftheholyfamily.com. The Sisters of the Holy Family. Retrieved 2020-09-24.
  8. ^ Shane K. Bernard, Teche: A History of Louisiana's Most Famous Bayou, Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2016
  9. ^ "Henriette DeLille". Contemporary Black Biography. Detroit: Gale. 30. 2001. Retrieved 1 March 2015.
  10. ^ Fessenden, Tracy (2000). "The Sisters of the Holy Family and the Veil of Race". Religion and American Culture. 10 (2): 187–224. doi:10.1525/rac.2000.10.2.03a00030. ISSN 1052-1151.
  11. ^ "The first real New Orleans saint? Henriette DeLille's path to canonization". NOLA.com. Retrieved 2017-12-23.

Further reading[edit]

  • Cyprian Davis, O.S.B., Henriette Delille: Servant of Slaves, Witness to the Poor (New Orleans, LA: Sisters of the Holy Family, 2004) – the official biography of Henriette DeLille, co-published by the Sisters of the Holy Family and the Archives of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
  • Sr. Detiège and Dr. Charles Nolan, No Cross, No Crown. See pages copied from the book, which outlines Mother DeLille’s Creole ancestry and describes who was permitted to join the Order in the years 1842–1865.

External links[edit]