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Henriette Delille: Servant of Slaves, Witness to the Poor!

Donna Toliver Grimes

Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time

“Blessed are you who are poor…Blessed are you who now hungry…Blessed are you who are now weeping…Blessed are you when people hate you and they exclude and insult you and denounce your name as evil…” (Lk 6:17, 20-26) In this version of the Beatitudes, Jesus speaks to a crowd that is seated on a plain rather than on a mountainside. The Evangelist Luke centers Jesus, the Master Teacher, in an image of equality. The large crowd came together from all over the region. Picture the community of kinfolk and friends, of neighbors and unknown passers-by, of elders, youth and babies. News of Jesus’ presence circulated through the neighborhood grapevine reaching many who were sick and infirm some of whom arrived that day on their last hope and prayer. Jesus healed them and even released their demons.

When I hear this gospel at Mass, my mind usually is drawn to common human conditions that seem to exist perpetually. Yet, Jesus spoke to those who were experiencing poverty, hunger, rejection and mourning not in the past or future, but in the present moment.

Furthermore, unfortunate life circumstances nearly always are experienced by families. Poverty binds opportunities for families to thrive. It determines who eats and doesn’t eat on any given day. Although death is inevitable, families mourn separation from their loved ones again and again.

Like Jesus, 6 African American candidates for sainthood provided families with spiritual and physical nourishment. Their faith compelled them to nurse the sick, educate those who hungered to learn and directed the poor and vulnerable in the community to the source of true healing and contentment. Venerable Henriette Delille of New Orleans is one of those holy persons.

Mother Delille is commonly credited with establishing the religious community known today as the Holy Family Sisters (SSF). This community of consecrated Black Catholic women survived incredible resistance from both civil authorities and local Catholics. The latter detested the sight of Creole and Black women wearing religious habits in public and no White religious community would have them if their African blood was evident. White Americans of the time determined this cast to be promiscuous and sinful.

However, historian Dom Cyprian Davis OSB revealed that in 19th century America the path to consecrated religious life was neither clear nor direct while entangled with anti-Black and anti-Catholic hatred. In his biography, Henriette Delille: Servant of Slaves, Witness to the Poor (published by the Archdiocese of New Orleans with the Sisters of the Holy Family, 2004) Davis states, “By 1847, the apostolate of the three women was supported by an association of men and women incorporated as the Association de la Sainte Famille (Association of the Holy Family).” Its purpose was the “relief of infirm indigent persons” which is exactly what Jesus did in today’s gospel. The men of the Association were referred to as “zelateurs” aka “friends, associates, patrons.”

It is solidly documented that the sisters and the Association were devoted to promoting and documenting sacramental life especially Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Matrimony and continued study of the Catechism. The Association of the Holy Family offers a viable strategy for energizing Black Catholicism today by meeting struggling families with Jesus on the Plain.

Authored: Donna Toliver Grimes, Assistant Director, African American Affairs

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