Born of the Spirit: Sisters of the Holy Family of New Orleans

December 27, 2022

The city of New Orleans celebrated Mardi Gras Feb. 13 with a nod to the 300-year-old city's Catholic roots. Four floats from the Krewe of Rex, which has been parading since 1872, had Catholic themes, including one featuring Mother Henriette Delille, a candidate for sainthood. A free woman of color born in 1813, she founded the Sisters of the Holy Family in 1842 to teach and catechize slaves at a time when doing so was prohibited by law. (CNS photo/Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald)

A charism is a creative gift given by God to bring a human situation closer to His loving plan for humanity. Thus He inspired Henriette Delille to witness to God’s love in the service and promotion of the dignity of African Americans. She founded the Sisters of the Holy Family in 1836 in New Orleans.

The sisters are the second-oldest surviving congregation of African-American sisters. The congregation was a pioneer among pioneers. As innovators promoting education and equality for African Americans, Sister Delille and her sisters suffered the same persecution and prejudice as the people they served.

Yet they clung to the vision for greater dignity and equality of the poor and needy African Americans, especially the children and elderly. The sisters instructed free and enslaved children and adults. They took into their own home some of the older women who needed nursing care. In this way, they founded the first Catholic home for the elderly.

The sisters cared for the sick and dying during the yellow fever epidemics that struck New Orleans in 1853 and 1897.

These valiant sisters brought their commitment to serve and educate American African children to the Diocese of Galveston-Houston. They took over the administration of Holy Rosary School in Galveston in 1898, and St. Nicholas School in Houston in 1905. They continued to serve in diocesan schools for over 100 years, serving also at Our Mother of Mercy and St. Philip Neri schools.

The Sisters of the Holy Family were also the first African American congregation to serve as overseas missionaries. In 1898, they opened schools in Belize, then British Honduras. They served there until 2008, bringing many improvements to the whole school system.

The gift of love that Sister Delille received from God she fanned into a great flame of service for the poor. The Church formally recognized her depth of love and fidelity to human service.

In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI declared Mother Delille to be Venerable. A miracle attributed to her intercession was approved by a medical board in 2013. Today her congregation and the Church actively promote her cause for sainthood. Last September, Peter Cardinal Turkson met with the Holy Family Sisters in New Orleans to discuss the sainthood cause for Mother Delille.

The light of the love of Venerable Delille continues to attract young African American women to serve their brothers and sisters for the love of God. This year two sisters made their Perpetual Profession, and others continue to follow them in the initial stages of formation for religious life.