Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)
Credible Witness: Venerable Henriette Díaz DeLille
By Heather King
Venerable Henriette Díaz DeLille (1812/1813–1862), an African-American Creole woman from New Orleans, founded the Catholic order known as the Sisters of the Holy Family. The order, which still exists today, sheltered and nursed both the elderly and orphans, and established schools for the education of slave children during a time when such education was illegal.
DeLille was born a freewoman into a culture that offered few opportunities for women of color. Her great-great-grandmother came to America as a slave from West Africa. Her mother and other female relatives formed monogamous relationships as the mistresses of wealthy white men under the extralegal system known as plaçage that was recognized at the time by French and Spanish slave colonies.
Raised in the French tradition of Roman Catholicism, well-educated, and groomed to take her own place in the plaçage system, Henriette resisted, believing the practice violated the sacrament of marriage.
She was confirmed in 1834, and at twenty-four, some three years later, she experienced a sudden surge in devotional fervor. During that time she wrote in French on the flyleaf of a book about the Eucharist a kind of credo that, translated, reads: “I believe in God. I hope in God. I love. I want to live and die for God.”
The idea for an order began to form. Its goals would be nursing the sick, caring for the poor, and instructing the ignorant. In 1836, she drafted the rule and, with an inheritance from her mother, who had fallen into mental illness, established a small order originally known as the Sisters of the Presentation.
DeLille’s family did not support her efforts. Along with her siblings, she was 1/8 black and 7/8 white, and thus able to pass for white. Her brother Jean in particular feared that Henriette’s visibility in the Creole community would expose his mixed-race ancestry.
DeLille forged ahead. Another of her goals was to provide catechesis. By 1838, she had established an apostolic ministry throughout New Orleans, acting as a witness and sponsor for marriages and baptisms.
In 1842, she officially founded the Sisters of the Holy Family, together with her lifelong friends Juliette Gaudin and Josephine Charles, who provided indispensable assistance. The sisters welcomed and served the free and the enslaved, children, adults, and the aged. They opened the Lafon Nursing Facility of the Holy Family, the first Catholic home for the elderly of its kind in the U.S. It still operates today.
The order was small and poor. The social and legal forces arrayed against it were formidable, but the sisters’ advisor, Father Étienne Rousselon, saw to it that the order was formally recognized by the Holy See. At the time black women were not considered worthy by New Orleans bishop Antoine Blanc even to wear a religious habit.
DeLille died at forty-nine or fifty, some say of hard work, six weeks before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. One wonders whether her hidden sanctity didn’t have a hand in that momentous legislation.
In 1988, she became the first U.S.-born African-American to have a cause for canonization officially opened by the Church.