Two decades before the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, in antebellum New Orleans, a French-speaking woman of African descent named Henriette Delille founded a religious order for black women called the Sisters of the Holy Family. Now, some 175 years later, Delille is poised to become not only New Orleans’ first official saint, but also the first U.S.-born black saint.
Delille’s story is inspiring. She was born in 1812 and, as a young Creole woman, she lived with a white man in a common-law marriage permitted under the system of “placage” (an extra-legal system that circumvented the laws preventing interracial marriage). When she was 24, after the death of two young sons, she experienced a religious conversion of sorts that led her to found the Sisters of the Holy Order. Her focus was tending to the elderly, caring for the sick, and teaching slaves and free blacks whose access to education opportunities was severely limited. She was known for conducting itinerant catechism classes on the banks of the Mississippi. And all of this took place during a period in Louisiana history when taking any actions that might “disturb” the population (for instance, by educating them) was considered criminal behavior.
As Virginia Gould and Charles Nolan, editors of No Cross, No Crown: Black Nuns in Nineteenth Century New Orleans note, "That a small band of Afro-Creole women founded a religious community in the antebellum South was remarkable… Conventions of class, race, gender, and condition held implications for free women of color in New Orleans as they did nowhere else in the Deep South.” Delille’s work, in other words, is remarkable.