Sunday, October 18, 2009

Nicolas Dumesnil de Glapion: Henriette DeLille: A True Southern "Saint"

  Just a little under six weeks before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, the following obituary appeared in a New Orleans, La. newspaper:

  "Last Monday died one of these women whose obscure and retired life was nothing remarkable in the eyes of the world but is full of merit before God.... Without ever having heard speak of philanthropy, this poor maid had done more good than the great philanthropists with their systems so brilliant yet so vain. Worn out by work, she died at the age of 50 years after a long and painful illness borne with the most edifying resignation."

  Henriette DeLille was born to a well-to-do New Orleans family in 1813. While still a girl, she began visiting the sick and the aging of her race, slave and free. By the age of 22 her mother suffered a nervous breakdown and was declared mentally incompetent and unable to manage her own assets. Henriette was granted guardianship of her mother’s assets and after providing for her mother’s care, Henriette sold off the rest of the estate and started an unrecognized order of nuns, The Sisters of the Presentation.

  Henriette was listed as a free woman of color, although, genetically, she was seven-eighths white and even though the laws changed to offer her an opportunity to be listed as a white citizen, she refused to deny her heritage—even though this action caused numerous difficulties as she attempted to pursue life in a religious community.

  Barred by law from joining a white religious community, Henriette sought to establish one for women of color. At first the bishop denied her request, but eventually he became convinced of her determination to serve God and neighbor, and along with two other free women of color, Henriette DeLille, on November 21, 1842, founded the Sisters of the Holy Family, a religious community for women of color. The end of slavery was still more than 20 years away. Although Henriette’s calling was to fulfill her spiritual side, it was not such smooth sailing with her personal life (or what personal life a nun has). Her brother, Jean DeLille, was so outraged over Henriette identifying herself as she was, Creole, (thus outing him and the rest of their family as such when they were attempting to portray themselves as white) that he moved himself and his family to a Creole settlement, in Iberia Parish called La Cote-aux-Puces (now known as Grand Marais).

  When Henriette and a second sister moved into a small rented convent, they took with them five elderly women from the neighborhood. The sisters did not charge for their services and subsisted by begging. In addition to caring for the elderly and visiting ailing slaves in their quarters, the sisters held classes for free and slave children and adults.

  Many nights the sisters went to bed hungry as they were well known for giving their own meals to those poorer than they were and to simply drink sweetened water. In 1837 Father Etienne Rousselon joined Henriette’s efforts and secured formal recognition of the new order from the Vatican. In 1842 the order officially changed their name to the Sisters of the Holy Family, by this point, the membership still only consisted of seven young Creole women, a young French woman, Fr. Rousselon, and Henriette herself.

  At the time of Henriette DeLille's death on November 17, 1862, her sisters numbered 12. Henriette never wore a habit. It was not until 1872 that the right to wear one was granted to religious women of color. The legacy of Henriette DeLille continues to this day. The Sisters of the Holy Family still press forward with a little over 200 members serving the poor by operating free schools for children, nursing homes (for example, Lafon Nursing Home of the Holy Family which is 153 years old, and is possibly the oldest nursing home in the United State) and retirement homes in New Orleans and Shreveport, La.; Washington, D.C.; Galveston, Texas; Little Rock, Arkansas; and the Central American country of Belize. Damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 shut down the New Orleans operations of the order and members formerly based in New Orleans are serving in other areas of the world. In 1989 the order formally launched its campaign with the Vatican to canonize Henriette DeLille

  Just thought you folks should know.

  About the author: Nicolas Dumesnil de Glapion is a staff writer for the Capital City Free Press.

Copyright © Capital City Free Press

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