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 CNS Story:

DELILLE-DAVIS Jul-1-2004 (930 words) With photo to come. xxxn

Priest's decade of research yields book on Mother Henriette Delille

By Florence L. Herman
Catholic News Service

NEW ORLEANS (CNS) -- Henriette Delille, a free black woman born in New Orleans around 1810 and descended from a long line of free black women, set aside the life expected of her and made a courageous choice to live for God, said her biographer.

She founded the Sisters of the Holy Family, a religious community for black women.

Researching and writing the biography of Mother Henriette Delille was like putting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, said Benedictine Father Cyprian Davis.

His forthcoming book, "Henriette Delille, Servant of Slaves, Witness to the Poor," chronicles the life of the free black woman.

Father Davis, a professor of church history at St. Meinrad School of Theology in Indiana, said he wanted the book to be a "serious scholarly work" and has spent the past 10 years assembling the various pieces of Mother Henriette's life.

"All the pieces are not there," he said, "but you work with what you have and make an educated guess about the missing pieces."

In 1994 the Sisters of the Holy Family chose Father Davis to write the biography of their foundress, whose canonization cause was accepted in 1988 by the Vatican Congregation for Saints' Causes. If her cause advances, she could become the first African-American saint.

"When you do a biography you want good sources like diaries and letters. There was very little of that," he told the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the New Orleans Archdiocese.

He found his information in civil records, church records and financial records, and in the archives of the Sisters of the Holy Family.

Surprisingly, in the middle of some bookkeeping records, Father Davis found Mother Henriette's rules for the sodality or confraternity that she was planning to form. "Her name was not on the list of members, but the rules were in her handwriting," he said.

The Delille family became free because Mother Henriette's great, great grandmother, Nanette, who was from Africa and was brought to America as a slave, was freed after the death of her owner. Years later, Nanette had amassed enough money to buy her daughter, Cecile, and two of her grandchildren out of slavery.

Under Spanish rule at the time, Louisiana had laws on slaves' rights, so a slave could be bought out of slavery over the wishes of his or her owner.

"Under their law," said Father Davis, "a slave could demand that an owner name a price for the slave's freedom, and if the owner refused, there was a court process that could be followed."

Mother Henriette's family was not poor, Father Davis said. "In fact, her uncle was a man of wealth," he added. But despite being free and wealthy, the priest said, "they had a second-class citizenship."

Free blacks, he explained, "tended to be intelligent and resourceful entrepreneurs, amassing money and property."

Although her mother claimed herself to be illiterate, he noted, she was a businesswoman who bought and sold property and slaves.

Mother Henriette's sister, Cecile, had several children by a wealthy man and inherited a comfortable settlement when he died. That would have been the normal thing for Henriette to do, said Father Davis, but it was not the case for her. In about 1836 she underwent a religious experience during which she wrote, "I wish to live and die for God."

"She was active in baptizing slaves and encouraging marriages among them," said Father Davis.

Records at St. Louis Cathedral and St. Augustine Church show that she was a frequent sponsor at baptisms.

Additionally she was active in the St. Claude School, an establishment for the education of young girls of color. "We don't know how much she taught at the school," said Father Davis. "We can only hypothesize that she instructed at the school."

During the 1840s Mother Henriette began assembling the group of women who would become the Sisters of the Holy Family. The group received full ecclesiastical approval in 1851, according to Father Davis. It is known from records that the sisters cared for at least four elderly women, probably former slaves, who lived in a house next door to the sisters.

Judging by the sisters' library and archives, which contained the works of St. Francis de Sales and St. Teresa of Avila, Father Davis concluded that the fledgling group was made up of educated and literate women.

"They had a rather good library, equal to many others of literate and educated people," Father Davis added.

Mother Henriette had been sick periodically during her life. When she made her first will in 1851, she was described as being very sick. Eighteen months later, she drew up another will in which she left a gift to help "continue the charitable works that I have founded."

A surprise in this will, Father Davis said, was that she freed her slave, Betsy, but put her in her brother's care until she could be freed without having to leave Louisiana, as the law at that time required. In a third will, in 1860, she simply freed Betsy.

Mother Henriette died in 1862, probably of tuberculosis, Father Davis said.

Father Davis said he enjoyed doing the research for his book.

"Trying to put it all together was more difficult," he said. "I am sure there are areas where we can do more digging. But you have to arrive at the point and say this is what we have and go with it. I don't think of this as definitive, because I think others can continue digging and go further."


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