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S+L on the road - when the Saints go marching…

Cheridan Sanders

Sunday, April 12, 2015

henriette-delillejpg-002 Venerable Henriette Delille, Founder of the Sisters of the Holy Family.
As I mentioned in a previous post I've been in New Orleans for the past couple of days doing some research for a new series which will feature the charisms of seven women religious communities in Louisiana and Africa.
Naturally, my first stop was Treme one of the oldest and historically significant neighbourhoods in New Orleans. For those unfamiliar with the area it is an important centre of African-American and Creole culture. Jazz fans will immediately recognize it as the home of Louis Armstrong (‘Satchmo’ to folks down here).
What you may not realize however, is that Treme is also home to St. Augustine’s church, a church which is intricately connected with the story of several significant religious women’s communities in New Orleans.
You see, prior to becoming the site of St. Augustine's church, the property was originally purchased and used as a school to educate free women of colour and slaves. Both the Ursulines and the Carmelites were involved in this controversial endeavour.
Later in 1842, when Henriette DeLille and Juliette Gaudin, publicly knelt before the altar to pledge before all that they would live in community and work with orphans, the uneducated, the poor, and the sick, St. Augustine's became the site where the Sisters of the Holy Family came into being.
Today the Sisters of the Holy Family are the second oldest African-American congregation of religious women in America.
Interestingly, St. Augustine’s other claim to fame is that it was the first fully racially integrated parish in America. Although, how that all came about is not what you'd expect:
A few months before the October 9, 1842 dedication of St. Augustine Church, the people of color began to purchase pews for their families to sit. Upon hearing of this, white people in the area started a campaign to buy more pews than the colored folks. Thus, The War of the Pews began and was ultimately won by the free people of color who bought three pews to every one purchased by the whites. In an unprecedented social, political and religious move, the colored members also bought all the pews of both side aisles. They gave those pews to the slaves as their exclusive place of worship, a first in the history of slavery in the United States. An excerpt from St. Augustine's Church website.
Imagine that!
But to get back to Henriette Delille, I suppose what captures my imagination most about this bone fide New Orleans saint is how her love for Jesus led her to defy the social conventions of her time. It was expected that free born women like Henriette should aspire to becoming a placee (concubine) to wealthy white men; but, she chose not to participate in the placage system and devoted herself to serving Jesus instead. This, during a time when  it was commonly held that women of colour could not become consecrated religious.
With Henriette Delille’s cause for canonization underway, its a marvel to reflect upon how these Sisters have educated and inspired generations of young women to embrace Christ. And as my gracious tour guide Ms. Linda Harris, the parish secretary at St. Augustine’s and former student with the Sisters, shared with me during my recent visit - the Sisters' mere presence continues to provide great witness to all they encounter. Here’s a clip from that conversation (I hope that you’ll forgive the poor quality).

The Producer Diaries - Cheridan Sanders shares her experiences developing an original S+L television series featuring seven women religious communities located in Africa, the Philippines, Timor-Leste and the United States. The globe-trotting series invites viewers to delight in the spiritual gifts of each of community and witness the extraordinary work of: educating girls, ministering to outcasts, sheltering HIV orphans, preventing human trafficking, taking care of the elderly, and so much more. The time is now to show the world how magnificent our Sisters are. The new series is an exciting collaboration with the Loyola Institute for Ministry in New Orleans and is made possible through a $900 000 dollar grant from the Conrad Hilton Foundation.

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