Henriette was the daughter of a mari (a wealthy white man) and a placee (a mistress, typically a woman of color), born in New Orleans. She lived there her entire life. Her father was French, and her mother was a Creole* of color of French, Spanish, and African ancestry. Although she was trained by her mother to take her place in the placage society and become a placee, Henriette resisted and became an outspoken opponent of the palcage system (and rightly so!). She was well educated, and began teaching at a New Orleans Catholic school at the age of 14 in 1827.
Her mother had a nervous breakdown in 1835 and was declared incompetent. Henriette was granted custody of her mother’s assets and after making sure her mother had enough money for care, sold everything. In 1836, she founded a small group of religious women, the Sisters of the Presentation.After receiving official status in 1842, the Sisters renamed their order to the Sisters of the Holy Family. They were to serve the slave populations and the poor in the city and in Louisiana.
Henriette’s life was not without troubles. The ruling population of New Orleans was very much against a black religious community. She frequently lacked funds. Her own brother was horrified. Many did not support her mission, including the civil authorities. The local Church was not pleased as well, which is not surprising due to the politics of the Louisiana and New Orleans dioceses.
She was compassionate, merciful, and forgiving. She lived in hope and love. She believed in justice. She was known as the “Servant of Slaves.” Henriette’s religious order is still active in New Orleans, much of Louisiana, Texas, and in Central America. Her obituary states: “… Miss Henriette Delille had for long years consecrated herself totally to God without reservation to the instruction of the ignorant and principally to the slave.”
Lord, let me serve you without reservation, and with a compassionate heart.
*Creole: as defined by historians of Louisiana and the colony of Louisiana, a Creole was someone born in Louisiana, usually New Orleans. There are many in New Orleans today who still identify as Creole first, French or Cajun second.