AUZENNE: Venerable Henriette Delille - An unlikely nun

November 8, 2022

Portraits of three of six Black American Catholics who are sainthood candidates are seen at St. Matthew's Cathedral Feb. 6, 2022, during a Mass marking Black History Month. Pictured from left are: Sister Thea Bowman, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, known for her singing, speaking and evangelizing; Pierre Toussaint, a Haitian American who was brought to New York City as a slave and became a hairdresser and philanthropist after becoming free; and Mother Henriette Delille of New Orleans, a descendant of slaves who founded the Sisters of the Holy Family in 1836. (CNS photo/Javier Diaz, Catholic Standard)

On Oct. 15, 1851, in the city of New Orleans, Henriette Delille professed her vows as a religious sister. Although the walk to St. Mary’s Chapel was only a few blocks, her journey to religious life had been a long one.

Henriette was a femme de couleur libre (“free woman of color”), the daughter of a free Black mother and a White father.

At the age of 15, Henriette entered into a common-law marriage and gave birth to two sons, whom both died as infants. Her husband left her soon after the death of their second son, and she was so poor that she could not pay for the baby’s burial.

In her grief, Henriette turned to God and found both her Savior and her calling to religious life. But in 1830’s New Orleans, the only Black faces in convents were the enslaved women that worked as servants there. Firmly convinced of her vocation, Henriette persevered through years of rejection to eventually found the Sisters of the Holy Family, a religious community for Black women. That community celebrated its 180th anniversary this year.

Venerable Henriette Delille is one of six Black American Catholics whose lives are being considered for canonization. What spiritual lessons can we learn from this unlikely nun?

Start now. Henriette did not wait for permission from someone more powerful or influential to begin doing what God asked of her. Beginning in 1836, she and her small community educated enslaved people, nursed the sick and provided for the poor. By the time the Sisters of the Holy Family were formally recognized in 1842, they had already touched hundreds of people through their works of mercy.

Keep going. Henriette was determined to honor her vocation to religious life, despite the tremendous odds against her. She courageously declared her “yes” to God with this simple prayer: I believe in God. I hope in God. I love. I want to live and die for God. We see the fruits of this prayer in the lives of the many Holy Family sisters active in ministry today.

Be reconciled. Henriette’s witness of holiness is set against the terrible racism she endured within the institutional Church. In that way, her story reflects the experiences of many people alive today who have endured racial discrimination in our local parishes, schools and institutions. For healing to occur, these stories must be told and received in a spirit of reconciliation. In our current climate of racial reckoning, the Church must lead – not follow — in the crucial work of racial justice.

Thanks to the cause for her canonization, the story of Venerable Henriette Delille has spread far beyond the New Orleans neighborhood where she lived and toiled with her sisters. Her story reminds us that saints are a gift to the entire Church, making us aware that holiness exists in every time and place. The trials of the saints are also our trials; their triumphs are our triumphs, and their heavenly home is ours, as well.

Venerable Henriette Delille, pray for us! †

Amy Auzenne, MSW, MACE, is the director of the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis.