Heart of Louisiana: Henriette Delille

Heart of Louisiana: Henriette Delille
Updated: Jun. 12, 2018 at 8:27 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - When you hear about Saints in New Orleans, you probably think football. But a New Orleans woman is on a path that could lead to her becoming the first native-born African-American saint in the United States.

A New Orleans religious group is hoping for miracles. The Sisters of the Holy Family, founded in the 1840s by Henriette Delille, a free woman of color, are hoping the Vatican will validate two miracles attributed to their founder. That could help clear the path to sainthood for Delille. This book contains the church's investigation of Delille's life and ministry in New Orleans.

"It was brought to the Holy Father at that time was Benedict the 16th, and so he said that is it proved that she had practiced heroic virtue and that she would be declared venerable. And that was in 2010," said Doris Goudeaux.

Delille was a mixed-race Creole woman, groomed to be part of the placage system where she would be mistress to a wealthy white man. But she felt that lifestyle was in conflict with her deep Catholic faith.

She would have liked to become a sister, but she couldn't join one of the communities that already existed because of she was not white.

"Her oldest ministry was to take care of the sick and the elderly, and then from that have Lafon nursing facility, which is known as the oldest continuously operating Catholic nursing home in the United States," said Greta Jupiter.

Delille and her fellow sisters made it their mission to care for the elderly, the sick orphaned children and the poor, and to educate African Americans.

"It was certainly illegal for them to even to have the slaves to teach them how to read and to write," Jupiter said.

Delille took her first vows at St. Mary's Church in the French Quarter, and the order had its first ministry in Treme at St. Augustine Church. Years later, their convent moved to the French Quarter to what is now the Bourbon Orleans Hotel. Delille helped found St. Mary's Academy, a school for girls that stands next to the sisters' convent and nursing home in Eastern New Orleans.

"She was a social justice person who wanted to make things right and put everyone on the same plane, and also to make sure that everybody's dignity was recognized," said Jupiter.

There is a small chapel honoring the venerable Henriette Delille inside St. Louis Cathedral. The Vatican is now investigating two proposed miracles - one in Arkansas and another in Galveston where terminal patients recovered after families prayed to Henriette Delille.

"And I think it certainly wouldn't be inspiring for the people of the African American people to know that there is someone of their own race who has been elevated to one of the highest recognized positions in the Catholic church," Jupiter said.

Delille's faith has inspired and uplifted the Catholics of New Orleans for the past 175 years.

There are two more steps to sainthood for Delille, and both involve miracles. If the Vatican verifies one miracle attributed to Delille, she would be beatified as "blessed."  And with a second verified miracle, she would be canonized and declared a saint.