For nearly 15 years, Henriette Delille (1812-62) remained committed to a call from God made difficult to answer on account of man’s sins. The reality was that no religious communities in New Orleans would accept her into their community, either racist themselves or unwilling to confront the systemic racism of the time. But on Oct. 15, 1851, Delille at last was able to profess poverty, chastity and obedience and give her life to Christ as a professed religious.
A few details of Delille’s profession are significant and shed light on the enormity of what she undertook that fall day in the chapel of the Ursuline convent in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Taking the religious name Marie Terese, Delille took upon herself a task of reforming religious life, much like her inspiration St. Teresa of Ávila. While Ávila, Spain, worked to overcome the lax and lavish lives of the Carmelites in her day, Delille had to overcome the prevalent racist mindset that plagued the Church of her time.
Delille’s entrance to religious life arrived outside of the customary norms of the day. Aspirants to religious life were young, came from relative affluence and were white. Delille was not of those. Delille was the fourth generation of freedpersons, her family having gone from slavery to owning slaves. She was expected to follow the course of her family’s matriarchs and form a liaison relationship with a white man, which afforded them a better life than marriage to a man of color like themselves. In fact, without the ties brought by marriage, the women who adhered to this plaçage system remained solely in charge of everything from finances to their children’s upbringing.
Delille’s mother groomed her to take up this way of life. Records indicate Delille entered into such a relationship early in her life, but it did not last long. It produced two children who both died in infancy. And not long after, a court declared her mother mentally insane. Just past 20 years of age, Delille found herself surrounded by grief and hardship.
In 1836, Delille experienced a conversion, and her faith was intensified and reinvigorated. After receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation, which was received in those days by only the most devout in practice of the Faith, Delille became a woman wholly committed to the Lord. Her guiding motto, written in a prayer book, captures what defined her heart and spurred her vocation: “I believe in God. I hope in God. I love. I want to live and die for God.”
Her desire to live the Faith more fully brought her closer to like-minded friends, Juliette and Josephine. Together they engaged in ministry to enslaved and free girls and women of color. Laying the foundation for her order, which at the time was known as the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, she wrote their rule of life in 1836. Through her motivation and vision, this new congregation would bring Christ to the peripheries of their city and beyond.
Delille’s new congregation chose “one heart and one soul” as its motto, reminiscent of the apostolic way of life in Christianity’s earliest days. Their desire was threefold. First, they sought to “bring back Glory to God and the salvation of the neighbor by a charitable and edifying behavior.” They were committed to be Christian women of utmost authenticity and integrity. Second, the women resolved to help each other in this task and in the work they set out to accomplish. Third, they pledged to serve those in need throughout the wider community. Their mission was to care for the poor, sick and elderly, “the first and dearest objects of the solicitude of the congregation.” And the new sisters were intent on teaching “the principal mysteries of religions and the most important points of Christian morality” to both slave and free children.
The congregation would not have existed, too, without the support and patronage of New Orleans’ archbishop Anotine Blanc and his vicar general Father Etienne Rousselon. The latter was a source of generosity and support to the fledgling community and a spiritual mentor to Delille. Both clerics assisted the women in the formalization of their community and their recognition within the Church. By 1842, the congregation became known officially and for good as the Sisters of the Holy Family.
As the congregation grew, Delille contributed inheritance she received after her mother’s death to begin growing an institutional presence. By the 1850s, Delille’s community had a convent with classrooms, operated an orphanage and educated young girls in literacy and catechism while teaching them skills such as sewing. The education they provided to enslaved children was outlawed at the time. Their service to the sick included the victims of a yellow fever epidemic, and they also brought into their home elderly infirm women, a first in America.
Delille’s generosity and love was known to everyone who knew her. She responded to the Lord’s call with great love, requisite perseverance and heroic virtue. The last decade of Delille’s life was dedicated to attracting new members to the congregation. At the time of her death, 12 sisters of mixed racial descent resided at the convent.
Delille truly was a mother, not just to the congregation of sisters she established, but to all she encountered. Parish sacramental records show she even served as godmother and marriage witness in many circumstances. Delille died on Nov. 16, 1862, at the age of 50. An obituary summed up her calling “for the love of Jesus Christ she had become the humble and devout servant of the slaves.” Delille’s cause for canonization opened in 1988, and she was declared venerable by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.
|Prayer for the Beatification of Venerable Mother Henriette Delille|
O good and gracious God, you called Henriette Delille to give herself in service and in love to the slaves and the sick, to the orphan and the aged, to the forgotten and the despised.
Grant that inspired by her life, we might be renewed in heart and in mind. If it be your will may she one day be raised to the honor of sainthood. By her prayers, may we live in harmony and peace, through Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Amen.
Nihil obstat: Rev. Msgr. Franz Graef, S.T.D.