Henriette Delille

African American, Founder of Religious Order in New Orleans

Sisters of the Holy Family, New Orleans, circa 1899
Sisters of the Holy Family, New Orleans, circa 1899. Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Known for: founding an African American religious order in New Orleans; the order provided education for free and enslaved black people, contrary to Louisiana law

Dates: 1812 - 1862

About Henriette Delille:

Henriette Delille was born in New Orleans between 1810 and 1813, most sources agree on 1812. Her father was a white man and her mother a "free person of color," of mixed race. Both were Roman Catholics.

Her parents could not be married under Louisiana law, but the arrangement was common in Creole society.  Her great great grandmother was among slaves brought from Africa, and she became free when her owner died.  She was able to earn enough to free her daughter and two grandchildren by payment for their freedom.

Henriette Delille was influenced by Sister Marthe Fontier, who opened a school in New Orleans for girls of color. Henriette Delille herself refused to follow the practice of her mother and two siblings and identify as white. Another sister was in a relationship much like their mother had been, living with but not able to marry a white man, and having his children.  Henriette Delille also defied her mother to work with slaves, nonwhites, and whites among the poor of New Orleans.

Henriette Delille worked within church institutions, but when she tried to become a postulant, she was refused by both Ursuline and Carmelite orders because of her color.

If she'd passed for white, she most likely would have been admitted.

With a friend Juliette Gaudin, also a free person of color, Henriette Delille established a home for the elderly and bought a house to teach religion, both serving nonwhites. In teaching nonwhites, she defied the law against educating nonwhites.

With Juliette Gaudin and another free person of color, Josephine Charles, Henriette Delille gathered interested women together, and they founded a sisterhood, Sisters of the Holy Family. They provided nursing care and a home for orphans. They took vows before Pere Rousselon, a white French immigrant, in 1842, and adopted a plain religious habit and a rule (regulations for living) written primarily by Delille.

The sisters were noted for their nursing care during two yellow fever epidemics in New Orleans, in 1853 and 1897.

Henriette Delille lived until 1862.   Her will gave freedom to a woman named Betsy who had been a slave owned by Delille until her death.

After her death, the order grew from the 12 members it included at the end of her lifetime to a peak of 400 in the 1950s. As with many Roman Catholic orders, the number of sisters dwindled after that and the average age increased significantly, as fewer young women entered.

Canonization Process

In the 1960s, the Sisters of the Holy Family began exploring canonization of Henriette Delille. They formally opened their cause with the Vatican in 1988, at which time Pope John Paul II recognized her as "Servant of God," a first phase that can culminate in sainthood (the subsequent steps are venerable, blessed, then saint).

 Reports of favors and possible miracles were reported, and investigations on a possible miracle were wrapped up in 2005.

In 2006, after the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints at the Vatican received the documentation, they declared a miracle.

The second of the four phases towards sainthood has been completed, with a declaration of Henriette Delille as venerable in 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI.  Beatification would follow once the proper Vatican authorities determine that a second miracle can be attributed to her intercession.

Popular Culture

In 2001, Lifetime cable premiered a movie about Henriette Delille, The Courage to Love. The project was promoted by and starred Vanessa Williams.  In 2004, a biography by Rev. Cyprian Davis was published.