November is National Black Catholic History Month.

Many Americans would have found antebellum Louisiana to be exotic place, with its French and Spanish influenced culture. Other southern Americans most likely would have been surprised that Louisiana’s tolerance of the nearly equality of les gens de couleur libres [free people of color]. But the Anglo-Saxon Protestants who prevailed in America would’ve been positively shocked at the practice of plaçage. This was a cultural phenomenon in which white men (usually of wealth and sometimes legally married to a white woman) entered into de facto marriages with free women of color.

These relationships produced children who were often openly acknowledged by their fathers and sometimes by the legal wife of the father.

In 1812, Henrietta Delille was born into such an arrangement. Her father, Jean Baptiste Delille-Sarpy, was a well-to-do white man, unmarried, who had a plaçage relationship with Marie Josef Dias, a free woman of color.

Henrietta’s mother, Marie, envisioned a life similar to her own for her daughter. But Henrietta had ideas of her own. She rejected the plaçage lifestyle, which cost her her  relationship with her mother as well as monetary fortune. And although like most of her family, her complexion was light enough that she could have passed for white in Louisiana’s stratified racial society, she declined to do so, proclaiming herself a free woman of color.

Henriette Delille

As to the latter matter, race and color, Henrietta’s principles worked against her immediate interests. Because she was nonwhite by her own admission, the very devout Henrietta was denied entrance as a postulant by both the Ursulines and the Carmelites.

Under the tutelage of Sister Marthe Fortier of Dames Hospitalières, 14-year-old Henrietta began a ministry serving the poor, black, white, and mixed race, in the streets of New Orleans.

I believe in God. I hope in God. I love God.
I want to live and die for God.

Prayer of Venerable Mother Henriette Delille

After her parents died Henrietta used her inheritance to buy a house which she used as a school to teach religion to free blacks and poor whites. She was assisted in this regard by a French immigrant priest, Père Etienne Rousselon, and her friend, Juliette Gaudin. Later, another free woman of color, Josephine Charles, join in the effort.

With the help of Father Rousselon, the women eventually were recognized as a religious order of the Catholic Church. They originally called themselves the Sisters of the Presentation, but later changed the name of the order to Sisters of the Holy Family.

The Sisters of the Holy Family operated parochial schools and did other charitable work. By the middle of the last century, their membership numbered over 400. Today, although there are only about 200 Sisters of the Holy Family,the order continues its work. The sisters run schools and nursing homes in Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, California, and the District of Columbia. They also do charitable work in Belize.

The Sisters of the Holy Family opened a cause for canonization of Mother Delille in 1989. In 2010 with the documentation of one miracle ascribed to Mother Delille, Pope Benedict XVI declared her “venerable.” the church’s investigation continues and with the documentation of another miracle she may be declared beatified. The process to formal recognition of sainthood can be lengthy. But many believe that Henrietta Delille will become the first US-born person of African descent to be canonized.

There is some controversy surrounding the potential canonization of Henrietta Delille. One issue is that she was a slave owner. She owned one slave, a woman named Betsy, whom she freed in her will. The other issue springs from the poisonous well of racism.

There are some who object to characterization of Venerable Mother Delille as the first “African-American” or black potential saint. They claim that she was not a black woman but a “Creole.”

The term Creole with respect to people in Louisiana has several divergent meanings, all of which arise from the racialist need to classify people. It was the same “need” that led to the so-called “one drop rule.” Under that rule, Henrietta Delille is certainly a black woman. In any event, she self-identified as “nonwhite.”

This dispute illustrates our continuing human failure to see life the way God wants us to see it. It illustrates as well the conundrum of “race” in America. As Catholics we all want to celebrate the holy life of a good person. On the other hand, tucked into our little human-defined niches, we don’t want others to take what we believe is ours. I know that the ways of God are but a mystery to us but somehow I feel certain that in welcoming Henrietta Delille to his kingdom he didn’t turn around account and see how many blacks, whites or Creoles were already there.

References:

C. Davis, Henriette Delille, Servant of Slaves, Witness to the Poor,” (Sisters of the Holy Family,New Orleans 2004)

Answers.com: Henriette Delille (2012) http://www.answers.com/topic/henriette-delille

National Black Catholic Congress, Mother Henrietta Delille, http://www.nbccongress.org/black-catholics/mother-henriette-delille-famous-blacks.asp

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