Over the last two years we’ve added several impressive ladies to our squad: Qiu Jin, Juliette Gordon Low, Canada’s Famous Five, and the “lady killers” of the game of bridge, Fritzi and Rixi, also known as Frisky and Bitchy. But we have a special place reserved, of course, for sisters. Today we’re honoring a different kind of sisterhood – that of the 175-year old,African-American Roman Catholic order of the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans, Louisiana.
The Sisters of the Holy Family are a fundamental New Orleans institution. They minister to the poor, elderly and sick, including during a rampant outbreak of yellow fever and famine in 1897. They built the city’s first Catholic high school for African-American girls. They run a nursing home across the street from their motherhouse in the heart of the city. When all of these structures got destroyed during Hurricane Katrina, six sisters rode out the worst of the storm with 100 nursing home residents. In the wake of Katrina, they rebuilt their school, their home, and their motherhouse. The order boasts over 700 members today.
How did this formidable squad get together in the first place (other than, of course, being called by faith)? It all started with a young girl who grew up in a system she found to be unfair, unfulfilling and immoral.
The plaçage system was a reflection of the complex mix of race, colonialism, and fluctuating legal status that characterized life for many people in New Orleans in the early 1800s. European men would pair up with women of color, typically of African or Native American descent, and enter into a kind of common-law marriage. European women were in short supply in rough-and-rowdy early America, and also people died a lot, so this system was a way for white men to have all the benefits of a wife without, you know, actually marrying.
And this system – let me tell you – was bonkers, at least by modern standards.
Sometimes, a man would have a house with his white family outside the city, but would stay with his plaçage “wife” downtown at his discretion. Sometimes, this was a short-term arrangement, and a man would leave his Creole “wife” to marry a white woman later. Sometimes, the relationship was indeed based on mutual love.
In the plaçage system, free women of color often gained a more comfortable life and better prospects for themselves and their children, as wealthy European men provided housing, money and sometimes education for their Creole families. Like dancing at funerals and getting your frozen daiquiri to go, the whole thing was a widely accepted, bizarre-anywhere-else New Orleans special of unusual social practices.
Born in 1813 as the result of one of these relationships, Henriette Delille was expected to follow in her parents shoes and common-law marry a white man. She was not too keen on this, especially given her strict Catholic upbringing – she held marriage in high esteem, and this transactional union was not, in her mind, a good Catholic marriage.
But DeLille had another reason to reject such an arrangement.
She wanted to become a nun.
She started teaching at a Catholic school. After her mother died, she used the money from her estate to start a small congregation of Creole nuns. As women of color, it was not legal for this congregation to exist, and they certainly weren’t allowed to wear the habit. DeLille faced further obstruction from her brother, who wanted her to give up her associations with mixed-race people and try to pass as white.
Still, the Sisters of the Holy Family persisted. DeLille grew the order to 12 members, all devoted to caring for the worst-off (especially caring for elderly, enslaved women) before she died during the Civil War. She never got to see slavery end or her congregation come to serve over 1,300 students in Catholic schools, filling a need for African-American education created by school segregation. She never got to see her order of nuns hold strong during Katrina and then recover, or grow to 700 sisters.
But the City of New Orleans did name a street for her, and Vanessa Williams played her in a movie. And best of all, if you’re thinking “wow, this woman’s a saint” – you’re right. She’s well on her way to being canonized, having passed two of four stages on the road to sainthood. Pope Benedict XVI decreed her to be “venerable” in 2010, and next up is beatification. So if praying’s your thing and you’re so inclined, here’s the request by the Sisters promoting devotion to Sister Henriette DeLille.