Black Americans on the Way to Sainthood: Henriette Delille

Henriette Delille, (1812-1862), founder of Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary“For the love of Jesus Christ, she had become the humble and devout servant of the slaves.”
By Josephine Dongbang

Henriette Delille was born in 1812 in New Orleans, Louisiana, to a loving Catholic family. While Henriette was born a free woman, she was descended from an enslaved African woman and white slave owner. Thus, following the tradition of the females in her family, she was groomed to form a monogamous relationship with wealthy white men under the plaçage system. She was trained in French literature, music, and dance, and expected to attend balls to meet men who would enter into such civil unions. Most of these agreements often ended up with the men later marrying white women in “official” marriages and/or abandoning their promises of support for the women and their mixed-race children. As a devout Catholic, Henriette opposed such system, believing it went against the Catholic sacrament of marriage.

In 1836, at just twenty-four years old, Henriette experienced a religious epiphany and declared her intention to live a holy life, especially in service of those of African descent, free or enslaved. She sold all of her belongings and used the proceeds to found an order of nuns called the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They vowed to live piously and care for the community by helping the poor, nursing the sick, and educating children and adults, both free and enslaved. Their mission extended “to teach catechism to the poor and to prepare them for first Communion.” With the help of Henriette’s friends, Juliette Gaudin and Josephine Charles, the order continued to grow and in 1842, received formal recognition from the Holy See. They changed the name to the Sisters of the Holy Family and Henriette took the title of Mother in the order. Despite meager resources and disapproval from the ruling class, the Sisters persevered by their love for all people. They served as godmothers to many in the community, including slaves, they took in some elderly women with great needs, starting the first Catholic home for the elderly in America, and were instrumental in caring for the sick and dying during the yellow fever epidemic in 1853.

Mother Henriette died at the age of forty-nine in 1862, during the American Civil War. Those closest to her attributed her poor health and eventual death to years of hard work, poverty and a life of service. Her obituary ended with “for the love of Jesus Christ, she had become the humble and devout servant of the slaves.” The order had twelve members at the time of her death and the Sisters struggled in Mother Henriette’s absence, but by 1909, it grew to one hundred fifty members and by 1950, four hundred members. The order continues to serve the community today, operating free schools, nursing homes and retirement homes. In honor of Mother Henriette’s devotion to the community, the city of New Orleans named a street after her in 2011.

The order brought the cause for Mother Henriette’s canonization to Blessed John Paul II in 1988 and she became “the first US native born African American whose cause for canonization has been officially opened by the Catholic Church”. The United States Catholic bishops unanimously endorsed her cause, the Church declared her “servant of God,” and Pope Benedict XVI named her Venerable in 2010. A potential miracle first underwent review in 2005, and by 2017, several other miracles claimed by her intercession have been undergoing medical scrutiny. Mother Henriette Delille lived a holy life of devotion and service by the words of her prayer: “I believe in God. I hope in God. I love. I want to live and die for God.”

Mother Henriette Delille “affirmed the God-given dignity of persons of African descent during the era of slavery.” We should be inspired by her perseverance and service, and honor her by continuing her mission to overcome racial division in our country and to share God’s love with all people.