February 16, 2018

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Black Catholics in U.S. history: This week, Henriette Delille

John F. FinkHenriette Delille is the first U.S.-born African-American whose cause for canonization has officially been undertaken. She was declared Venerable in 2010.

She was born in New Orleans in 1812 and was known 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, even among Catholics who otherwise practiced their faith.

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 Henriette refused to have anything to do with it.

She applied for admittance to two religious communities, but was denied because of the color of her skin. Therefore, she gathered three other free women of color and they began to catechize African-Americans, both slave and free, in the basics of the Catholic faith. After seven years, 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.” They were to work for the sick, the infirm and the poor.

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.

The sisters lived simply and in great poverty. One biographer 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 that she founded. †

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