On Nov. 16, 1862, Henriette Delille died. Delille, a free woman of color, founded the Sisters of the Holy Family, a religious order for Black women which served poor people of color, orphans, slaves and the elderly. 

Delille was born March 11, 1812, in New Orleans to a free woman of color, Marie Josephe Diaz, and a married French merchant, Jean Baptiste Lille Sarpy. Her great-great- grandmother was an enslaved person from West Africa. 

Delille grew up on Burgundy Street in the French Quarter and she went to mass with her mother at Saint Louis Cathedral. She attended Saint Claude Street School where she would befriend Juliette Gaudin and Josephine Charles.  

At the age of 24, Delille experienced a religious transformation. She wrote in French, the following declaration: “I believe in God. I hope in God. I love. I want to live and die for God.”

Delille dedicated her life to servitude.  In 1836, she laid the groundwork for the Society of the Holy Family, an organization focused on taking care of the most vulnerable in the city — the poor, elderly and orphaned. In 1842, with the help of childhood friends Gaudin and Charles, Delille founded the Sisters of the Holy Family near St. Augustine Church in Treme. The Sisters cared for the sick during critical times such as the yellow fever epidemic, visited and cared for the elderly, supported the poor, and educated both free people of color and enslaved people.

Delille and the Sisters of the Holy Family have also been credited with founding America’s first Catholic home for the elderly.

Despite the lack of support for her mission, not only from New Orleans’ upper “ruling” class, but also the Catholic church, Delille remained steadfast in her work.

Delille died on November 16, 1862 at the age of 50. Her funeral was held at St. Augustine Church, and she was buried at Saint Louis Cemetery Number 2. 

In 1988, the Sisters of the Holy Family asked permission from the Catholic Church to start the four-phase canonization process for Delille, the process used to make someone a saint. It was granted and Delille became the first U.S. native-born African American in which a canonization process had been opened by the Catholic Church.

Delille was named a “Servant of God,” which was the first phase of the canonization process. In 2010, the second phase was completed when Delille was declared “venerable” by Pope Benedict XVI.

The third phase, being declared “blessed” through the validation of a miracle, is still under review. Should the miracle be validated, Delille will be celebrated in New Orleans and moved on to the fourth and final phase, sainthood, which also requires the validation of another miracle.

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Shannon Stecker is a creative writer, a marketing director, and a lover of stories. She has spent the past 15 years of her career in a creative space – as a print and broadcast journalist, a freelance...