This story first appeared March 25th, 2017.
By: Kim Chatelain, The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS (AP) ” It was 2011, and Archbishop Gregory Aymond was seeking a sacred antidote to the violence, murder and racism infesting his hometown. He turned to a venerable figure in New Orleans history, but one only vaguely known to even the most ardent Roman Catholics, and composed a prayer that is now recited at every local Mass. It ends with the plea: “Mother Henriette Delille, pray for us that we may be a holy family.”
She was a French-speaking woman of African descent, who was born in 1812 and lived a part of her life as a mistress in a social system known as placage, whereby wealthy white European men supported free women of color.
After her two young children died, Delille, then 24, experienced a religious transformation that led to the formation of the Sisters of the Holy Family order. The community of Creole nuns cared for those on the bottom rung of antebellum society, administering to the elderly, nursing the sick and teaching people of color, who at the time had limited education opportunities. To this day, Holy Family nuns continue good works around the globe.
Now, 175 years after she founded the order, Delille stands at the doorstep of sainthood. If canonized, she will become the first New Orleanian, and the first U.S.-born black person, recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.
In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI by declared Delille “venerable,” a level of sanctity that no other local person has reached. Today as Catholics recite Delille’s name during Mass, doctors, scientists and other researchers from Little Rock, Arkansas, to Rome are trying to determine if two miracles attributed to Delille’s intercession are valid. Verification of the miracles, one in Arkansas and one in Texas, are the last two steps in an arduous process to declare sainthood. Both cases involve people who were near death but recovered after prayers were offered to Delille.
But even as her cause for canonization remains pending with the Vatican, Aymond says, Delille stands as a titanic historical figure.
“Henriette Delille showed extraordinary courage and virtue in choosing to love God and to serve His people, particularly those most in need,” Aymond said. “Her legacy lives on through the ministry of the Sister of the Holy Family and has already been recognized worldwide.”
Path to piety
Much of what is known about Delille comes from research to build her case for canonization and from information provided by the archdiocese.
While her great-great grandmother, Nanette, was a slave from West Africa, Dellile was a fourth-generation free woman of color. Her parents were Marie Josephe Diaz, a descendent of Nanette, and Jean Baptiste Lille Sarpy, a married French merchant.
She was born in a Creole cottage in the French Quarter and appeared destined to live as a mistress to a white businessman, allowing him to have a second family. Under placage, mixed-race women in the stratified, pre-Civil War New Orleans society led comfortable, somewhat privileged lives, as did their offspring.
Delille was trained by her mother in nursing, music and literature, and groomed to follow her mother into placage. Church records indicate that Henriette had two sons by her white sponsor, both of whom died before the age of 3, according to an exhibit at the Old Ursuline Convent Museum in the French Quarter.
By the early 1830s, Delille was devoting herself to caring for and educating the poor.
She and her blood relatives were light-skinned, and her parents and siblings listed themselves as white in the census. But Delille chose to label herself as a free person of color, according to historical accounts. Most holy orders were open only to white women.
In November 1836, Dellile and her friends Juliette Gaudin and Josephine Charles created the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, for laywomen of color. With the help of local Catholic leaders, the new congregation established a base in Treme and changed its name to Sisters of the Holy Family.
The nuns taught slaves who had no other educational opportunities, cared for the elderly and shared what they had with the poor. In 1842, the Sisters of the Holy Family Order was founded at St. Augustine Church.
In 1850, the nuns moved and formed a school for free women of color.
Delille died of tuberculosis in 1862 at the age of 50, one of 12 members of the Sisters of the Holy Family. By 1909, the order had grown to 150 members and was operating parochial schools that served 1,300 students in New Orleans, according to historical accounts. In 1934, the sisters were educating more than 4,000 pupils in 17 schools across Louisiana, Texas, and Florida. The order’s membership peaked at 400 in 1950.
Servant of slaves
In its 175 years, the Sisters of the Holy Family have had missions in Texas, California, Washington, D.C., and Belize. But New Orleans has always been the order’s home.
It now counts 83 members, said Sister Greta Jupiter, leader of the congregation. They run the nation’s oldest Catholic nursing home, the Lafon Nursing Facility, along with St. Mary’s Academy and the St. John Berchmans Manor senior citizen center.
The sisters began a drive about 30 years ago to have their founder canonized. Archbishop Philip Hannan embraced the idea.
Many wondered why the sisters didn’t try earlier. In a 1999 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Sister Sylvia Thibodeaux recounted the common belief that the church, before the 1960s, might not have wanted to elevate a woman of color to sainthood. “Nobody ever thought we would get anywhere,” she said.
The Vatican opened Delille’s cause for canonization in 1988. For the next 17 years a team of sisters, archbishops, bishops, priests, scholars and others studied Delille’s life and achievements, collecting almost 3,000 pages of historical data from several cities and countries.
Vanessa Williams starred as Delille in a movie that premiered in 2000 on the Lifetime cable television network.
In the summer of 2005, just before Hurricane Katrina struck southeast Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the local research was completed and sent to Rome.
Seven historians and nine theologians approved it in May 2009. On March 27, 2010, Pope Benedict issued a decree declaring Henriette Delille “venerable.” In essence, the declaration means the Vatican is convinced that Delille lived a life of “heroic virtue.”
The remaining step needed for canonization is proof that Delille, by prayer-prompted intercession, is responsible for two miracles.
Miracles in the making
In the late 1990s, Sister Doris Goudeaux, then a teacher at St. Mary’s Academy in New Orleans, learned that her 4-year-old grand niece, who lived in Houston, was suffering from double pneumonia and a severe bacterial infection. Doctors said she probably would die ” and, if she lived, would remain in a vegetative state for the rest of her life.
Goudeaux asked her students to pray for Delille to intercede for a cure. A short time later, the youngster made a complete recovery, astounding doctors.
The girl, whose name the order did not release, remains healthy and is in graduate school after graduating with honors from Rice University.
“We believe this is a miracle,” said Goudeaux, now historian for the Sisters of the Holy Family.
But it’s only a miracle if the Catholic Church authenticates it. A panel of seven doctors and medical experts in Rome is studying this case, seeking scientific affirmation that the healing had no clear medical explanation.
The Church is also studying the recovery of a Little Rock college student who became comatose after a brain aneurism in 2007 and slipped into a coma. Her major organs shut down, and she was placed on life support with little chance of survival, said Jupiter.
The young woman’s parents continued to pray to Delille, and the student was completely healed. Church representatives from Rome are interviewing doctors and caretakers, Jupiter said.
Eventually, the work of the scientists and medical professionals will be presented to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the Roman Curia office that oversees the complex process leading to the canonization of saints. The case will then be presented to Pope Francis, who has the final say.
While its most familiar building is a Catholic cathedral and its most famous sports franchise carries a heavenly agnomen, New Orleans lacks a non-gridiron saint. Delille has already traveled father along the process than any other homegrown do-gooder, but canonization would be the ultimate prize for her and the city’s Catholics, church leaders said.
Five other African-Americans also are being considered for sainthood. Only one so far has reached venerable status: Haitian-born Pierre Toussaint, a New York hairdresser and former slave who died in 1853 at age 87. Toussaint provided financial support for orphanages and was a major benefactor of the first New York City Catholic school for black children. He was declared venerable by Pope John Paul II in 1996.
“Mother Delille … was a woman who stood for nonviolence and justice,” Aymond said. “She was from New Orleans, and we ask her to pray for us in this time of the new Battle of New Orleans.