New Orleans, Louisiana
|Died||November 16, 1862
New Orleans, Louisiana
|Venerated in||Roman Catholic Church|
Venerable Henriette Delille (1813-1862) was an Creole nun who founded the Roman Catholic order of the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans, which was composed of free women of color. The order provided nursing care and a home for orphans, later establishing schools as well.
Henriette Delille was born in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1813. Her father Jean-Baptiste Lille Sarpy (var. de Lille) was born about 1758 in Fumel, Lot-et-Garonne, France. Her mother, Marie-Josèphe "Pouponne" Días, was a free woman of color. Their union was a common-law marriage typical of the contemporary plaçage system. Her maternal grandparents were Juan José (var. Jean-Joseph) Díaz, a Spanish merchant, and Henriette (Dubreuil) Laveau, a Créole of color. Her paternal grandparents were Charles Sarpy and Susanne Trenty. Her maternal great-grandmother is said to be Cécile Marthe Basile Dubreuil, who is considered to be a daughter of Claude Villars Dubreuil, born in 1716, who came to Louisiana from France. The 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 take her place in the plaçage system as the common-law wife of a wealthy white man. Her mother also taught her nursing skills and how to prepare medicines from herbs. As a young Creole woman, under the watchful eye of her mother, she attended many quadroon balls, a chief element of their social world.
Henriette was drawn instead to a strong religious belief in the teaching of the Catholic Church, and resisted the life her mother suggested. She became an outspoken opponent of the system of plaçage, on the grounds that it represented 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 education of the poor grew, causing conflict with her mother.
The Sisters of the Holy Family
In 1835, Henriette's mother suffered a nervous breakdown. Later that year, the court declared her incompetent, and granted Henriette control of her assets. After providing for her mother's care, Henriette sold all her remaining property. In 1836 she used the proceeds to found a small unrecognized congregation or order of nuns, the Sisters of the Presentation. The original members consisted of Henriette, seven 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 elderly women who needed more than visitation, and thereby opened America's first Catholic home for the elderly.
Her brother Jean Delille was strongly opposed to her activities. He, like other members of their family, could pass for white, as they were octoroons, seven-eighths European or white in ancestry. His sister's actions within the Créole community exposed his ancestry. Estranged from Henriette, Jean Delille took his family and moved away from New Orleans to a small Créole community in Iberia Parish, Louisiana, called La Côte-aux-Puces, now known as Grand Marais.
In 1837, Father Etienne Rousselon secured formal recognition of the new congregation from the Holy See. In 1842, the congregation changed its name to the Sisters of the Holy Family. Henriette Delille continued a life of service to the poor of New Orleans. She died in 1862. Friends attributed her death to a life of service, poverty, and hard work.
At the time of her death, on November 16, 1862, there were 12 members of the order. The sisters were noteworthy for their cared for the sick and the dying during the yellow fever epidemics that struck New Orleans in 1853 and 1897. By 1909, it had grown to 150 members, and operated parochial schools in New Orleans that served 1,300 students. By 1950, membership in the order peaked at 400.
There is a street in New Orleans called Henriette Delille.
The order today
The Sisters of the Holy Family remain active today, with over 200 members who 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; California; and Belize.
Death and cause of beatification
Delille died in 1862 with a reputation of holiness. The Congregation for the Causes of Saints gave its formal assent for the commencement of the cause of beatification with the declaration of "nihil obstat" (nothing against) on 22 June 2010. She was then given the title of Servant of God. Pope Benedict XVI approved her heroic virtues and named her Venerable on 27 March 2010. An alleged miracle is now under investigation as of 2005 as a Medical Board close to the congregation approved it on 16 May 2013.
- In 2001, the Lifetime television channel premiered a movie based on the life of Henriette Delille, The Courage to Love, which starred Vanessa L. Williams and Gil Bellows.
- Glatz, Carol. "Pope brings African-American foundress one step closer to sainthood", Catholic News Service, March 29, 2010
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- "Henriette Delille and the Sisters of the Holy Family". Notable Black American Women. Gale. 20 December 1992. Retrieved 1 March 2015.
- "Venerable Henriette DeLille", Sisters of the Holy Family
- "Henriette Delille". Contemporary Black Biography. Detroit: Gale. 30. 2001. Retrieved 1 March 2015.
- 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 outline Mother Delille’s Creole ancestry and describes who was permitted to join the Order in the years 1842 - 1865.
- The Sisters of the Holy Family
- Mother Delille, New Orleans Native, Declared Venerable, by Eleonore Villarrubia, at Catholicism.org