August 8, 2008

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Possible U.S. saints: Henriette Delille

John F. Fink(Eleventh in a series of columns)

Henriette Delille is the first U.S.-born African-American whose cause for canonization has officially been undertaken. She was born in New Orleans in 1812, and was known at the time as “a free woman of color.”

Her great-great- grandmother had been brought from Africa as a slave. Claude Dubruiel, a French colonialist, bought her and had her baptized as Marie Ann in 1745. Although he was married to a white woman, Claude and Marie had four children. One of Claude’s legitimate children freed his half-siblings after Claude’s death.

Naturally, the Catholic Church condemned it, but the practice of white married men having black mistresses was a tolerated institution in New Orleans society in those days.

The law prohibited free women of color from marrying white men, and there were few free men of color so what was known as the quadroon system flourished.

A “quadroon” is a person of one-quarter black ancestry. As she matured, white men propositioned Henriette as part of the system, but she refused to become involved in that way.

She was only 17 when she gathered three other free women of color and they began to catechize African-Americans, both slave and free. After seven years of that, they formed a pious confraternity called the Congregation of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

At first, they didn’t live in community, but took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and dedicated their lives to helping African-Americans and persons of color. Their rule said that each sister was to “seek to bring back the Glory of God and the salvation of their neighbor by a charitable and edifying behavior,” working together since “each woman alone could do little to evangelize or care for others.”

In 1842, though, the women began to live in community in a house bought for them by the cathedral’s pastor. The community affiliated with the international Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The number of sisters grew and Henriette formed the Association of the Holy Family, whose members helped support the congregation with money and prayers. In 1850, she purchased a home where the sisters conducted religious instruction for children during the day and for women at night.

In their book Henriette Delille: Servant of Slaves, Virginia Meacham Gould and Charles E. Nolan wrote, “Many were the times that the foundresses had nothing to eat but cold hominy that had been left from some rich family’s table.” They described their clothing as “more like Joseph’s coat that was of many pieces and colors, darned until darn was not the word.”

In 1852, Henriette and some of the other sisters traveled to Convent, La., north of New Orleans, where Archbishop Antoine Blanc arranged for them to receive formal instruction in religious life from the Religious of the Sacred Heart. They stayed there for several months.

Henriette died when she was only 50 in 1862 during the Civil War. Seven years later, the Vatican gave formal recognition to the religious community. †

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