Henriette Delille made herself a servant of slaves, uneducated free people of color, and impoverished nonwhites. In
1826 at the age of fourteen, Henriette began her teaching and caring career, though it was illegal at the time. Her work gave education and hope to young Creole girls while she also labored to provide hospice-like care for the aged in New Orleans. By 1836, she had sold all of her property and used the proceeds to found a small unrecognized congregation or order of nuns, the Sisters of the Presentation to carry on her self-determined mission of service. In 1842, she founded the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family.
Henriette Delille was born into a New Orleans, Louisiana common law family of means and privilege in 1812. She was the youngest of three children born to Marie Josef Dias, a free woman of color, and Jean Baptiste Delille-Sarpy, a white man of French descent, who never married but lived in a plaçage (concubinage) arrangement with Marie. Though Henriette was a quadroon (one quarter black) and could have passed for white, she, unlike her siblings, chose to be known as nonwhite. Against her mother’s wishes, Henriette rejected the plaçage life she had been taught.
Beyond the challenge of plaçage, Henriette Delille faced the resistance of the ruling white population to the idea of a black religious congregation; lack of finances to more fully serve those in need; taunts and disbelief of people in her mission; lack of support from both the church and civil authority and poor health.
Henriette died November 17, 1862, a year and a half into the American Civil War. Her funeral was held at St. Augustine Catholic Church. Her obituary read in part, “…Miss Henriette Delille had for long years consecrated herself totally to God [and] without reservation to the instruction of the ignorant and principally to the slave…” “…Worn out by work, she died at the age of 50 years…” According to an article on the Sisters of the Holy Family web site, “The crowd gathered for her funeral testified by its sorrow how keenly felt was the loss of her who for the love of Jesus Christ had made herself the humble servant of slaves.”
Henriette Delille is a non-fiction character in a forthcoming novel (spring 2014) by Bob Rogers set in 1862 New Orleans.
© 2013 by Bob Rogers
Henriette Delille: Servant of Slaves, Witness to the Poor; Davis, Cyprian, 2004, Archdiocese of New Orleans.
 Sisters of the Holy Family web site, About Us, Venerable Henriette Delille.