Mother Delille

Henriette DeLille

Henriette DeLille (1813-1862) was born in New Orleans to Jean Baptiste DeLille Sarpy , a wealthy Frenchman who had immigrated to Louisiana and Poupone Diaz, a quadroon. Their union was a common-law marriage typical of the plaçage system of the day.

Early life

Henriette Delille was born in Louisiana in 1812. Her father, Jean-Baptiste (de Lille) Lille (Sarpi) Sarpy (French/Italian) was born in 1762 in Fumel, Lot-et-Garonne, France; and her mother, Marie-Josèphe (Pouponne) Díaz, of French, Spanish and African ancestry, a Creole of color, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. Her grandparents were Juan José (Jean-Joseph) Díaz, a Spanish merchant, and Henriette Dubreuil Laveau, a Creole of color. Her great-grandparents were Jean Sarpi and Cécile Marthe Basile Dubreuil, whose father was Claude Villars Dubreuil born in 1716, from France. (See 2 copies of Genealogy of Mother Delille) also (See Pages copied from the book, “No Cross, No Crown” written by Sr. Detiège and Dr. Charles Nolan, which outlines Mother Delille’s Creole ancestry and who were permitted to join the Order in the years 1842 - l865).

Trained by her mother in French literature, music, dancing, and nursing, Henriette was groomed to take her place in the plaçage system as the common-law wife of a wealthy white man. As a young woman, under the watchful eye of her mother, she attended many quadroon balls.

She was drawn to a strong religious belief in the teaching of the Catholic church, however, and resisted the life her mother suggested. She became an outspoken opponent of the system of plaçage, on the grounds that it represented a violation of the Catholic sacrament of marriage.

In 1827, at the age of 14, the well educated Henriette began teaching at the local Catholic school. Over the next several years, her devotion to caring for and education of the poor grew, causing conflict with her mother.

The Sisters of the Holy Family

Founded in 1837

In 1835, her mother suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of this conflict. Later that year, the court declared her incompetent, and granted Henriette control of her assets. After providing for her mother's care, Henriette sold all her remaining property. In 1836 she used the proceeds to found a small unrecognized order of nuns, the Sisters of the Presentation. The original members consisted of Henriette, seven young Creole women, and a young French woman.

Her brother Jean DeLille was strongly opposed to her activities. He, like other members of their family, was light skinned enough to pass for white. His sister's actions within the Creole community exposed his heritage. Embittered and estranged from her, he took his family and moved away from New Orleans to a small Creole community in Iberia Parish, Louisiana called La Côte-aux-Puces, now known as Grand Marais. There Jean DeLille married Marie Paméla Olivier, the free quadroon daughter of Charles Olivier de Vézin, former major in the French brigades of the Louisiana colony, and Magdeleine La Coste, a freed mulâtresse from New Orleans.

In 1837, Father Etienne Rousselon secured formal recognition of the new order from the Vatican. In 1842, the order changed its name to the Sisters of the Holy Family.

Henriette DeLille continued a life of service to the poor of New Orleans. She died in 1862. Friends attributed her death to a life of service, poverty, and hard work.

At the time of her death, there were 12 members of the order.

By 1909, it had grown to 150 members, and operated parochial schools in New Orleans that served 1,300 students.

By 1950, membership peaked at 400.

The order today

The Sisters of the Holy Family remain active today, with over 200 members who serve the poor by operating free schools for children, nursing homes, and retirement homes in New Orleans, Shreveport, Louisiana, Washington, D.C, Galveston, Texas, Little Rock, Arkansas, California, and the Central American country of Belize.

Hurricane Katrina in 2005 shut down the New Orleans operations of the order. Members formerly based in New Orleans are serving in other areas of the country.


In 2001, The Lifetime Cable Channel premiered a movie based on the life of Henriette DeLille, The Courage to Love, which starred Vanessa L. Williams.

External links

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