A new exhibit at the Old Ursuline Convent in the French Quarter explores the life and legacy of the woman many call a true New Orleans saint.
The exhibit honors the life of Venerable Henriette Delille, a free woman of color born in New Orleans in 1812, who is in line for sainthood and is best known as founder of the Sisters of the Holy Family. Her religious order is now said to be the oldest female-led African-American organization in the country.
The new exhibit, called “One Heart, One Soul: The Life and Legacy of Henriette Delille,” features photos, letters and artifacts of Delille’s life from the archives of the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the Sisters of the Holy Family.
“For many years, I think we were the best kept secret,” said Sr. Greta Jupiter, SSF, of the order which she leads as Superior. Though the order founded St. Mary’s Academy, the Lafon Nursing Home and Delille Inn in New Orleans East, its history and significance (especially since it was founded by a young African-American woman) may not be known to many.
“Henriette Delille was a very powerful and courageous woman. In many ways, she was the Mother Teresa of Calcutta of her day,” Jupiter said. “She took care of the poor, those who were not taken care of by others, the ignorant, the sick and the elderly. Her passion was in taking care of those who could not take care of themselves.”
Though born into a life of privilege, Delille made it her work to care for the poor, sick and elderly, most notably slaves and free people of color. In 1837 she co-founded a religious order, the Sisters of the Presentation, whose name was changed to Sisters of the Holy Family in 1842. It was important since, at the time, black women could not enter all-white religious orders. Delille died in 1862.
In 1881, the order moved its convent to the French Quarter, also establishing a girls' school, St. Mary's Academy, at 717 Orleans Ave., which previously had been the Orleans Ballroom, a site for quadroon balls. It now is the Bourbon Orleans Hotel.
In 1955, the nuns left the French Quarter for a convent on Chef Menteur Highway, across from what now is the Delille Inn. They also relocated St. Mary's Academy and their other well-known facility, Lafon Nursing Home.
In 1988, the process to canonize Delille as a saint was launched. She was declared "venerable" by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. Two miracles attributed to her intercession need to be investigated and recognized in order for her to be named a saint.
The exhibit on her life and legacy opens Oct. 17 and runs through September 2017 at the Old Ursuline Convent Museum, 1100 Chartres Street.
The museum is open for self-guided tours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays. General admission is $8, $7 for seniors and $6 for students. Large groups are welcome and should call (504) 503-0361 to make arrangements.
- with reporting by Bill Capo; with material from Gambit