Henriette DeLille, living in 19th century New Orleans, could have “passed." Born into a life of privilege to a mixed race couple, her pale complexion could have facilitated for her an easy integration into white society.
Or, like many free black women in that early French colony, she could have succumbed to the cultural norm of the plaçage system; a form of legal concubinage wherein, due to a shortage of available white women, wealthy or influential French men were allowed to keep common law Creole, African or mulatto wives.
But Henriette was not afraid of standing out in a crowd. And she wasn’t influenced by social trends or biases whether they be with regard to race, gender or religion.
Instead, Henriette’s strong belief in the teaching of the Catholic Church infused her with the courage to speak out against the system of plaçage. She understood it as demeaning to women and a violation of the sanctity of marriage.
Resisting her mother’s wishes for her to marry well, Henriette privately pledged herself to God.
In 1827, at the age of fourteen, Henriette, who was educated in French, music and literature, began teaching at the local Catholic school to slaves and nonwhites. In 1836, she established a home for elderly nonwhites.
Since, during her time of soul searching, no convent would accept women of color; in 1842 she founded the Sisters of the Holy Family.
But the story should never get old.
And, hopefully, it will serve to inspire others to follow suit.
Henriette DeLille was a tireless champion for the rights of the poor, the ignorant and disenfranchised.
In 1989, her cause for canonization was brought to the Vatican. If the plea is successful, she will be the first female black American saint.