Venerable Mother Henriette Delille

Henriette Delille was born in New Orleans in 1813 of Creole Ancestry. Trained by her mother in French literature, music, dancing and nursing, groomed to take her place as the common-law wife of a wealthy white man. This system was known as concubinage and was accepted and recognized. It was into this world of ambivalent values and confused racial boundaries that Henriette was born.

But, Henriette was instead drawn to a strong religious belief in the teaching of the Catholic Church, resisting the life chosen for her by her mother. She was an outspoken opponent of the system on the grounds that it represented a violation of the Catholic sacrament of marriage.

As an adolescent, she made the acquaintance of a member of a French nursing order, who was engaged in social work among the black population, they opened a school for young girls. The daughters of free people of color were educated by day and the slaves who received religious instructions by night. Eventually the friend returned to France and their proposed foundation of religious women, black and white, never materialized.

In 1836, Henriette and a childhood friend, Juliette Gaudin joined a religious community of young women of color, known as the Sisters of the Presentation, who worked among the poor blacks. This was discontinued, however because it violated the laws of the state concerning segregation.

Through the intervention of Fr. Etienne Rousselon, the dream of Henriette and Juliette for a religious community finally became a reality.  In 1842, the name was changed to the Sisters of the Holy Family. Henriette spent her whole life in service to poof blacks providing education, food, clothing, housing and nursing care.

Henriette Delille died November 17. 1862, at the age of 50.

The Sisters of the Holy Family are still active, with over 200 members, still serving the poor, operating free schools for children, nursing homes and retirement homes in Louisiana, Washington, D.C., Texas, Tennessee, California, Belize, Panama and Benim City in Nigeria, South Africa. (These, of course, have changed in recent times)

Henriette Delille is the first U.S. native born African American whose cause for canonization has been officially open by the Catholic Church. The process began in 1988. Henriette Delille was declared Venerable in 2010.