Pope brings African-American foundress one step closer to sainthood

VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI advanced the sainthood cause of Mother Henriette Delille, a freeborn woman of African descent in 19th-century New Orleans, declaring that she had lived a life of “heroic virtues.”

By signing the decree March 27, the pope confirmed the recommendations of Vatican authorities who have studied the cause for several years.

She can be beatified once a miracle is attributed to her intercession. If her cause advances, she could become the first African-American saint.

Pope Benedict also approved the decrees of three martyrs: a Romanian bishop, a German priest and a Slovenian lay member of Catholic Action who were killed for their faith in the last century.

In 1842 Mother Henriette founded the Sisters of the Holy Family, a congregation of black sisters that cared for the poor and disadvantaged and taught slaves and free blacks. This was during a time under Louisiana law when doing anything to “disturb” black people – in other words, educate them – could be punished by death or life imprisonment.

Today, the congregation’s more than 200 members operate schools for the poor and homes for the elderly in Louisiana and several other states. They also have a mission in Belize.

Mother Henriette’s sainthood cause was opened in 1988 and the New Orleans archdiocesan investigation was completed in 2005. Her cause was endorsed unanimously by the U.S. bishops in 1997.

Mother Henriette was born in 1812 and died in 1862. Her only recorded writing was penned in the inside cover of an 1836 prayer book: “I believe in God. I hope in God. I love God. I want to live and die for God.”

Documentation for her sainthood cause included records from the 1820s that suggested that as a teenager, she may have given birth to two sons, each named Henry Bocno. Both boys died at a young age.

One death record from the St. Louis Cathedral sacramental register listed Henry Bocno as the son of Henriette Delille. Other records that were found gave conflicting information, such as one record referring to Henry as the son of “Marie.” Another record named the mother as “Henriette Sarpy.”

There is also a possibility that the teenaged Henriette brought in an abandoned child and the priest mistook her for the mother, according to the archdiocesan archivist Charles Nolan.

In a 2005 interview, Nolan said the newly uncovered funeral records would not affect the cause, because even if she had given birth to two children out of wedlock, it happened two years before her confirmation in 1834.

“When the second child died, she took a whole different course in life,” Nolan said, noting she decided to dedicate herself “to live and die for God.”

Benedictine Father Cyprian Davis, who wrote a definitive biography of Mother Henriette, said in 2005 that “there was this change in her life, there was this turning completely to God. That’s really what counted – her life from that point on.”

Among the other decrees Pope Benedict signed March 27 was the recognition of the second miracle needed for canonization of Spanish Sister Bonifacia Rodriguez de Castro, 1837-1905, founder of the Sister Servants of St. Joseph, a congregation originally dedicated to providing a religious and technical education to poor women.

There were decrees approving the beatification of eight men and women, including three martyrs who are:

– Bishop Szilard Bogdanffy of Oradea Mare, Romania, an anti-Communist dissident who was born in 1911 and died in prison in 1953.

– Father Gerhard Hirschfelder, born in 1907 in Glatz, Germany, who died in the Nazi death camp of Dachau in Germany in 1942.

– Lojze Grozde of Ljubljana, Slovenia, a lay member of Catholic Action born in 1923 who was tortured and killed out of hatred of the faith in 1943.

Martyrs do not need a miracle attributed to their intercession in order to be beatified. However, miracles must be recognized by the Vatican in order for them to become saints.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.