Henriette Delille was born in New Orleans in 1813. Her father was a white man and her mother a “free person of color,” of mixed race. Both were Roman Catholics. Her parents could not be married under Louisiana law, but the arrangement was common in Creole society.
Henriette Delille was influenced by Sister Marthe Fontier, who opened a school in New Orleans for girls of color. Henriette Delille herself refused to follow the practice of her mother and two siblings and identify as white, and she also defied her mother to work with slaves, nonwhites, and whites among the poor of New Orleans.
Henriette Delille worked within church institutions, but when she tried to become a postulant, she was refused by both Ursuline and Carmelite orders because of her color. If she’d passed for white, she most likely would have been admitted.
With a friend Juliette Gaudin, also a free person of color, Henriette Delille established a home for the elderly and bought a house to teach religion, both serving nonwhites. In teaching nonwhites, she defied the law against educating nonwhites.
With Juliette Gaudin and another free person of color, Josephine Charles, Henriette Delille founded a sisterhood, Sisters of the Holy Family. They provided nursing care and a home for orphans. They took vows before Pere Rousselon, a white French immigrant, in 1852, and adopted a plain religious habit.
Henriette Delille lived until 1862. After her death, the order grew from the 12 members it included at the end of her lifetime to a peak of 400 in the 1950s. As with many Roman Catholic orders, the number of sisters dwindled after that and the average age increased significantly, as fewer young women entered.
In the 1960s, the sisters of the order began exploring canonization of Henriette Delille. They formally opened their cause with the Vatican in 1989.