Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Henriette Delille - The Subversive Power of Love

Recent movies like "Amistad," "Django Unchained," and "12 Years a Slave" help keep the scar of slavery alive in the conscience of Americans. The fury that surrounds the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the events that followed, is another reminder of racial and socio-economic inequality in the United States and the pain, frustration, and anger that so many people carry within them.  

It’s never permissible for Christians to support systems that prey on the weak and vulnerable or to allow unjust policies and ideologies to prevail. In our quest for peace and justice, we rely on women and men who are able to really see the world around them for what it is—the good with the bad—and who can name its wounds and the grace that is always at work in the world. These people are prophets. And, as Pope Francis has observed, the prophet is the one who says, “you are on the wrong path, return to the path of God!” Theirs is a message that “does not please the people in power on the wrong path” (Homily for April 4, 2014).

Prophets aren’t necessarily fiery Old Testament types, clad in animal skins à la John the Baptist decrying power and predicting doom with powerful speeches and mystical visions. Prophets can also take the form of faithful women and men who take it upon themselves to act in ways that effect change in the world. We might think of St. Francis quietly beginning a movement in the hills around Assisi, creating a new way of life which forever shaped the way Christians understand spiritual poverty and the presence of Christ in the poor. A more recent example is Dorothy Day. A gifted writer, she combined the power of words with a fierce dedication to serving the poor and marginalized in her Catholic Worker Houses of Hospitality.

When we think of our nation’s struggles with racism and income inequality, there is a largely unsung prophet who has much to say to our situation today, not through voluminous writings or innovative teachings, but through the witness of her actions and the legacy she left behind. Remembered today as the “servant of slaves,” Venerable Henriette Delille confronted systems of corruption and exploitation in her native New Orleans because she was able to envision a different way of life for herself and for both free and enslaved women.

The only known photograph of
Venerable Henriette Delille
Born in New Orleans in 1813, Henriette’s father was white and her mother was a “free woman of color.” As a free woman, she could own property but she was also born into the system of plaçage, in which European men would enter into the equivalent of common-law marriages with women of color, including those of African and Native American descent. This system reduced the women to the status of concubines and neither they nor their children had many rights under the law. Trained by her mother, who was part of the plaçage system, Henriette was trained in literature, music, dancing, and nursing—all skills which would have made her a desirable companion to the wealthy white men of New Orleans. Although not poor herself, she was nonetheless part of a system that objectified women and saw them only in terms of the pleasure they could bring to men. A late-19th century "Guide to New Orleans" recalled the famous "Quadroon Ballroom," the site of "Quadroon Balls," during which women of color of mixed ancestry would be put on display for wealthy white men. Its offensive language betrays a romantic longing for the days of plaçage: "No women were more beautiful than the quadroon women of New Orleans. The slight negro taint was betrayed only in the soft olive skin and deeply increased brilliancy of the eye, while no one, not versed in the signs by which the Louisianan recognizes at once the person of mixed blood, could distinguish in feature, hair or form any resemblance to the African type."

As a young woman, Henriette began to work with the poor in New Orleans and, in 1836, she experienced a somewhat intense religious conversion and outlined a way of life for a community of Christian woman. An inscription by Henriette on the fly leaf of a book of Eucharistic devotions is the only written testament we have to her simple, profound faith: “This book belongs to Henriette Delile [sic]. 2 May 1836. I believe in God. I hope in God. I love. I wish to live and to die for God.” Soon after, she began to bring together other women of color, living according to a simple rule of life, although they took no kind of religious vows and did not live in community. These “Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary” were to be united “in imitation of the First Christians, of whom the Blessed Virgin after the Ascension, was the mother and model.” The aim of the group was to care for the sick and the poor and to teach. The sisters were also to watch out for one another. If one of them became ill, she could rely on the others to care for her or her family. Should a member of the group die and leave behind children, the members of the union were expected to assume their care. In time, this loosely organized group of lay women became more structured and eventually evolved into the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family, which celebrates 1842 as the year of their official foundation. The ministry of the sisters continued to be focused on caring for the poor, sick, and elderly, and the education of children; the sisters continue this work today. In a turn of events that truly reflects the change Henriette and her Sisters of the Holy Family brought about in New Orleans, the famed Quadroon Ballroom (mentioned above) became the Motherhouse of the Sisters of the Holy Family in 1881.
An illustration from
Picayune's Guide
to New Orleans depicting
a Sister of the Holy Family
Mère Delille died of tuberculosis on November 17, 1862, at the age of fifty. For more than half her life she had quietly and diligently ministered to both slaves and free people of color and the integrity of her life and faith brought into focus the limits of white “benevolence” on behalf of the enslaved and exploited people of New Orleans.

In The Subversive Power of Love, Dr. M. Shawn Copeland reflected:
When Henriette Delille stepped outside the system of plaçage, she did so publicly and waged her body for the freedom of the body of Christ. She refused to be acted upon by male and female others, to allow them to seal her fate. She took control of her body, its situatedness in time and place and circumstance. That body functioned as a text on which she inscribed with authority her own vision of new life and love. She wrote herself vividly into the Communion of Saints…
In her struggle to live and die for God, Henriette Delille defied social convention and cultural custom, rejected the tepid religiosity of so many, and incarnated extraordinary moral audacity and spiritual courage through the subversive power of love.

Pope Benedict XVI declared Henriette Delille “Venerable” on March 27, 2010. May her prophetic witness inspire each of us to work for true freedom and equality for every person.

Prayer for the Beatification of Venerable Henriette Delille +
O good and gracious God, you called Henriette Delille to give herself in service and in love to the slaves and the sick, to the orphan and the aged, to the forgotten and despised.

Grant that inspired by her life, we might be renewed in heart and in mind. If it be your will may she one day be raised to the honor of sainthood. By her prayers, may we live in harmony and peace, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
(provided by the Sisters of the Holy Family)

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