A real New Orleans Saint
These five members of the Sisters of the Holy Family have all served Ville Platte at one point since the 1960s. They are (l. to r.) Sr. Clara Mae Jackson, Sr. Rita Darensbourg (currently serving), Sr. Edna Mae Jones, Sr. Agnes Marie Sampia, and Sr. Lucille Stelly (currently serving). (Gazette photo by Nicholas Jagneaux)
By: NICHOLAS JAGNEAUX
By: NICHOLAS JAGNEAUX
“I believe in God. I hope in God. I love. I want to live and die for God.”
With those simple sentences written in a book about the Eucharist, Henriette Delille expressed the deep faith that she acted out in corporal works of mercy, acts that continue to inspire and attract Christian women and men today.
It is because of her deep faith and abiding acts of charity that Venerable Mother Delille is being considered for sainthood by the Catholic Church. She is the native-born mixed-race American whose cause for canonization has been officially opened by the Vatican.
Delille, a Free Person of Color in antebellum New Orleans, gathered around her other women who wanted to dedicate their lives in serving the most poor and neglected around them. In 1847, Mother Delille’s community was formally christened Les Soeurs de la Sainte Famille (SSF), or Sisters of the Holy Family.
On Saturday, September 24, 15 sisters of the order gathered at St. Joseph Catholic Church here in Ville Platte to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the Sisters of the Holy Family. There are similar celebrations going on in other places where the order serves its communities across the world. On November 19, the year-long celebration will culminate with a Mass at the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis in New Orleans.
Breaking societal and legal barriers, Delille’s order is still active today, continuing the original charism of working with the sick, the elderly, and the poor. Religious women in her order are joyfully bearing Christian witness in places as nearby as St. Joseph Church; and as far afield as Nigeria and Belize.
Here in Ville Platte, two sisters of the SSF are currently serving St. Joseph parish. Sr. Rita Darensbourg serves as the parish’s pastoral assistant and catechetical leader. Sr. Lucille Stelly works with the elderly, the sick, and the imprisoned. Both of these women are continuing the same call that Mother Delille heard from God.
Ville Platte has been served by members of the SSF since at least the 1960’s, when sisters would come from Opelousas on Sundays with Josephite priest Fr. J.F. Paradis to St. Joseph Church. The sisters would teach catechism to the children of the parish.
In 2004, Sr. Clara Mae Jackson took up residence in Ville Platte, living at the old convent on Sacred Heart church property. In 2005, following Hurricane Katrina, the convent served as temporary housing for many sisters.
In 2007, Sr. Lucille moved to Ville Platte to work in nursing homes, with Hospice, and in the prison. In 2009, Sr. Rita replaced Jackson as St. Joseph pastoral assistant.
“I see a direct line from what Christ did, through Mother Delille, to what we are trying to do,” Darensbourg said. “Christ went among the poor and taught them, healed them, loved them.
“Mother Delille spent her life doing that. We want to continue that mission.”
Delille was born in 1812 into segregated New Orleans. The majority of Delille’s ancestors were of European origin. However, her great- great grandmother was a slave from Africa. This meant that Delille’s mixed-race maternal line was restricted legally and socially from full participation in society.
Nevertheless, Free Persons of Color, as mixed-race people were known, enjoyed certain legal rights, such as owning property and entering into contracts. However, many of the women were expected to participate in the plaçage system. This meant that they would become concubines for wealthy white planters. They were expected to live as husband and wife, including raising families, but their unions were not celebrated as sacramental marriages.
In fact, many of the planters would have a legal marriage and family waiting for them on the plantations; but they would keep their plaçage wives in apartments and houses in New Orleans for when they were in the city on business. These plaçage wives, like Delille’s mother and sister, had legal contracts drawn up to ensure that they and their children were provided for.
Delille’s mother expected Henriette to enter the plaçage system. She made sure that her daughter was educated and trained in nursing, music, and literature. Delille was groomed to play the part of the wife for a wealthy white planter.
However, when she was 24-years-old, Delille experienced a deep spiritual awakening. She rejected the plaçage system. She did not want to enter into a false marriage. Instead, she wanted to serve the poor and disadvantaged, especially the slave children, of New Orleans.
At the time, racial laws segregated blacks and mixed-race persons from entering white institutions, including the religious orders in the Catholic Church. Although Delille could pass for white, she steadfastly maintained her status as a Free Person of Color. Consequently, she would have to found her own order of women to serve the poor.
Delille faced opposition, not only from general society, but also from some church officials and even her family, as her brother cut off contact with her. Undaunted, Delille used her inheritance from her mother to subsidize her activity. With friends Juliette Gaudin and Josephine Charles, Delille set about heeding Christ’s call to care for the poor.
At a time when teaching a slave to read was a crime, Delille’s community set up schools for slaves and other freed blacks. They fed the hungry of New Orleans and tended the sick. They took into their homes elderly people, especially women, who had no other place to go. In effect, Delille founded the nation’s first nursing home.
In particular, Delille felt a special calling not only to care for the material needs of the poor, but the spiritual needs. According to baptismal records, Delille served as godmother for more people being baptized than any other person at the New Orleans cathedral. She first helped bring children into the spiritual Body of Christ, then she helped to care for their physical bodies.
Not everyone in the Church was opposed to her. Fr. Etienne Rousselon helped to secure approval from the Holy See, and Delille’s community had ecclesiastical approval. In 1847, the group was named the Sisters of the Holy Family.
Delille died in 1862, just 50-years-old. After her death, the order grew and spread around the world. At its height, the SSF had over 400 members. Today, the community continues Mother Delille’s original mandate of proclaiming the Gospel message of compassion to all people, with a preferential love for the poor and powerless.
The SSF currently has 80 members, but it operates schools, nursing homes, retirement homes, and food pantries across Louisiana, in California, in Washington, DC, in Nigeria, and in Belize.
In 1988, Pope John Paul II granted permission to investigate the life of Mother Delille as part of the process of canonization, by which the Church determines whether or not a person may be called saint. As part of the steps in the process, Mother Delille was decreed Venerable by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.
The next step – being canonized as Blessed – requires that a miracle has been obtained through the intercession of Ven. Delille. A second miracle after that would obtain the final step – being decreed Saint. There is currently a healing in Arkansas that is being investigated by the Vatican as having miraculous origin.
Regardless of whether the Church is officially able to recognize her as St. Henriette Delille, for the thousands of lives that she and her religious daughters have brought the peace and love of Christ to, she will always be known as Mother Henriette.