By Morgan Lawrence
The Sisters of the Holy Family, the first community of Black Catholic nuns organized in the South and the second in the United States, had their humble beginnings in New Orleans, Louisiana on Nov. 21, 1842. Under the leadership of founder, Henriette Delille, these young women wanted a ministry of total dedication in a religious life to charity, the poor, the orphans and the sick in their community. Upon recognition into the church as a legal organization, they were trained and educated in the proper doctrines and procedures of religious life in the Roman Catholic Church.
Henriette Delille was a free woman of color born in 1812 and grew up in the 500 block of Burgundy Street. She lived part of her life as a mistress in the social system known as “placage,” whereby wealthy white European men entered relationships with free women of color to circumvent laws against interracial marriage. After the deaths of her two young children born through this relationship, Delille, at age 24, formally rejected the societal norms and experienced a religious transformation that eventually led to the formation of the Sisters of the Holy Family order. The community of nuns provided care for those on the bottom of society, administered to the elderly, nursed the sick and taught people of color.
Father Etienne Rousselon, the pastor of the newly constructed St. Augustine’s church, rented a small house on St. Bernard Street for the sisters to use as a convent and a center to work from. On July 11, 1847, Henriette Delille, with the help of the free men of color of the community, organized the Association of the Holy Family for the purpose of incorporating the St. Bernard Home for the Aged and to provide the relief of the poor and sick. This incorporation became the first Catholic home for the elderly in the United States. The sisters worked day and night. They often ran out of food and money, so they turned to the community for donations and assistance.
On August 15, 1848, the sisters purchased the property on St. Bernard Avenue with the help of the association. Mother Henriette Delille later purchased the property at No. 172 Hospital Street, which was used as a convent and hospice house for the poor and elderly. At her death, Delille willed her property to the community.
On October 15, 1852, Henriette Delille, Josephine Charles, and Juliette Gaudin established a school for orphaned children, which was against the law at the time. Ten years later, Delille died and was buried in St. Louis Cemetery #2, where many of her sisters in Christ are also buried today.
Continuing Delille’s legacy, on July 27, 1881, the sisters exchanged their Chartres Street property and several vacant lots for one piece of property located at 717 Orleans Street. Here, they established their motherhouse and St. Mary’s Academy, the first secondary school for Black girls in New Orleans.
In need of more space for orphaned children, the sisters built an orphanage on the same square as the academy and named it St. John Berchman. In addition to this, Black philanthropist, Thomy Lafon, helped them build a chapel for the aged and infirmed on the corner of Tonti and Governor Nicholls streets.
Despite poverty and hardships, the sisters pursued their duties to keep their ministry alive. In 1905, the sisters purchased 125 acres of land in the Gentilly area of New Orleans, where they established their current motherhouse, Thomy Lafon Boys Home, Lafon Nursing Home, and the Delille Manor Senior Citizens Home.
In 1988, The Sisters of the Holy Family were informed by the Vatican that they may proceed with the canonization of Mother Henriette Delille. Now, 175 years after she founded the order, Delille stands at the doorstep of sainthood, with two phases of the four-phase canonization process now complete. If canonized, she will become the first New Orleanian, and Black person born in the United States to be recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.