Our congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family, whose Motherhouse is in Fremont, California should not be confused with the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans.
We thought it appropriate during Women’s History Month to give you some information on this congregation of women in Louisiana.
Henriette Delille was born in New Orleans in 1813. 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.
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, and she 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 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 1852, and adopted a plain religious habit.
Henriette Delille lived until 1862. 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.
In the 1960s, the sisters of the order began exploring canonization of Henriette Delille. They formally opened their cause with the Vatican in 1989.
In 2001, Lifetime cable premiered a movie about Henriette Delille, The Courage to Love. The project was promoted by and starred Vanessa Williams.
The Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family have maintained their original ministries of educating youth and caring for the aged, the poor, and the most abject of society. They own and operate the oldest continuous Catholic home for the aged in the United States, and operate two independent facilities for low-income senior citizens in New Orleans, Louisiana. The sisters are administrators and educators of two pre-school child development centers, one primary free school for the poor, two high schools, and seventeen elementary schools in the United States; have an on-going involvement in the Diocese of Benin City, Nigeria West Africa; and founded the first vocational school in Belize, Central America for those students who are unable to attend regular high school classes.
The Sisters have missions in Louisiana, Texas, California, Washington, D.C., and Belize, Central America. Jesus continues to call today’s women to share in this spirit-filled life. If you are between the ages of 18-40 and would like to live a life of prayer, dedication, and service to God and His people as a Sister of the Holy Family, we invite you to join us as we meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.