Henriette de Lille, Servant of the Slaves Print
Written by Sherry   
Saturday, 13 March 2010 12:42
I am so excited.

I have told the story of Henriette De Lille at every Called & Gifted workshop I have taught for the past 10 years and now comes this wonderful news via the Archdiocese of New Orleans's own Catholic Herald:

"The Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, composed of 15 cardinals and arch- bishops from around the world, voted unani- mously March 2 to ap- prove a declaration that Servant of God Henriette Delille practiced “heroic virtue” during her ministry to slaves and African Americans as foundress of the Sisters of the Holy Family in pre-Civil War New Orleans.

The congregation’s declaration has been sent to Pope Benedict XVI, and if he approves, Mother Henriette would be declared “venerable,


Henriette was a member of a community that very few white Catholics outside New Orleans are familiar with:  the Gens de couleur or free people of color.  To tell her story, I have to describe placage, a firmly entrenched, deeply racist system in which Catholic women of mixed race became the mistresses of married white Catholic men and a palpable tension always descends over the room.   I've even had participants tell me to stop telling Henriette's story because it made them so uncomfortable.   I was loath to stop but began to grow anxious until an elegant older black woman in San Francisco put my mind at rest.  "I lived it.  You preach it!" were her marching orders and I have done so ever since.

Remember that everyone in Henriette's story is a cradle Catholic.  The next time you encounter nostalgia for the prefections of pre-Vatican II American Catholicism or the spiritual power of pure Catholic culture, meditate for a few minutes about Henriette and the world she lived in.  The whole placage system was created by French speaking Catholics in Saint-Domingue (Santo Domingo) and spread from there to Louisiana where non Catholics were not allowed to lived until the Americans purchased the area in 1803.  The Church has found Henriette's remarkable resistance to the "Catholic" culture in which she was raised to be a sign of "heroic virtue".

In Henriette's day, the gens de couleur were free, educated, French speaking, practicing Catholics who sometimes owned their own plantations and their own slaves (some of whom were relatives) and for whom, the placage system was a way of life.

Under the placage system, it was acceptable for a white man to take a colored mistress - who was known as a placee - when she was as young as 12.  (Native born persons of mixed race did not think of themselves as either black or white but as "Creoles of color" and many of their descendants today still think of themselves that way.   They form a nation within a nation.)

When the white Creole man reached marriageable age, he could choose to retain his placee and so have two or more families: his legal white family and his informal family with a light-skinned Creole woman.  His white family usually lived on a plantation outside town and his gens de couleur family lived in a house he provided for them in one of the Creole areas of New Orleans like the Faubourg Marigny.   By 1788, 1,500 Creole women of color and black women were being maintained by white men (although not all gen de couleur women became placees).  Their children, both boys and girls, were educated in France, as there were no schools available to educate mixed-race children, and it was illegal to teach blacks to read and write.

Henriette was being raised to be a placee as her mother, grandmother, and sister had done before her.  Traditionally, these young women would attend the infamous "Quadroon" balls - lavish "debutante" balls to which, beautifully dressed and carefully chaperoned, they would go to meet their future protector.  The wealthiest and most illustrious of the Creole families of color formed themselves into the Société de Cordon Bleu around 1780 or 1790 to present their daughters--the best women of color--to the white Creole male elite to form long-term relationships.  Men of color were only present at these balls as servants or musicians.

It is a divine irony that it was at one of these balls that 11 year old Henriette met Sr. St. Marthe Fontier, the first religious sister she had ever known.  (In 1824, for a variety of historical reasons, there were few priests or religious in heavily Catholic New Orleans and only two places where Mass was celebrated:  St. Louis Cathedral and the chapel of the Ursuline convent.  The old Ursuline convent is the only French colonial era building still standing in the US.)

Sr. St. Marthe has opened a Catholic school for young girls of color and it had become the nucleus for missionary activities. During the night Sr. St. Marthe taught classes in morals and faith to adults and during the day, the young girls were given religious instruction. In order to secure more teachers to help her, Sister St. Marthe trained young colored girls to become teachers. As a result, Henriette began to teach at the Catholic school when she was fourteen years old.

Henriette's family were not happy with her new life (her mother had a nervous breakdown) and especially because she acknowledged her racial background and mixed with the black population.  Henriette's parents and siblings listed themselves as "white" for the 1830 census but Henriette referred to herself as a "free person of color".   Henriette would pay for that choice and turning her back on a life of privilege.

As a result of declaring herself nonwhite, Henriette was refused as a postulant by the Ursuline and Carmelite nuns, which were open only to white women. Nonetheless, Delille and her friend Juliette Gaudin, a fellow free person of color, continued to pray together and teach nonwhites. In 1836, they privately pledged themselves to God's service. They shared their pledge with two white French immigrants, Père Rousselon and Marie Jeanne Alíquot.

In 1842, Rousselon helped the two women establish a home for elderly nonwhites. With loans and part of her inheritance, Delille bought a house where she could teach religion to nonwhites, despite the fact that educating nonwhites was illegal at the time. A year later, Delille and Gaudin were joined by another free person of color, Josephine Charles. They formed the Sisters of the Holy Family but were not allowed to take formal vows for another 10 years.  Henriette's sister, who was the mistress of a wealthy Austrian businessman, introduced Henriette to many wealthy people, who gave generously to support her work. But sometimes, the sisters were so poor in the early days, that all they had for dinner was sweetened water.  They had given everything else away.

"There is documentation showing these women did not gloss over the prejudice, the difficulties, the hardships," Archdiocese of New Orleans archivist Charles E. Nolan was quoted as saying on Philly.com. "Still, there's not a note of bitterness--and that's one of the gifts she had, the ability to step beyond all of the hurt and prejudice and take the next step, to do what God called them to do."  Sister Sylvia Thibodeaux told the Los Angeles Times, "She was the servant of slaves. You can't get more committed than that."

De Lille died in 1862, the year that the Union Army took New Orleans.  She never saw the end of slavery.

And here's a reminder that racism hadn't been purged from Catholic attitudes by 1960.

"In the late sixties, the Sisters of the Holy Family approached the archbishop of New Orleans about embarking on the canonization process. When they asked for his support, he replied, "Why did you all wait so long?" according to the Los Angeles Times. "Clearly this is a life that needs to be elevated to sainthood." The sisters had waited because, before 1960, they doubted the Church would elevate a black woman to sainthood."

Venerable Henriette de Lille sounds very good.  Servant of God Henriette de Lille, pray for us.