The Misidentification of Mother Henriette Delille

The Misidentification of Mother Henriette Delille

by Marion Ferreira
August/September 2002

The Creole Family History Convention was a well attended event on Saturday, July 13, 2002. The family history displays were very well displayed for all to see -genealogy of generations as far back as 1768 were displayed along with pictures of ancestors not as far back as 1768 but some from at least the mid 1800’s. My family display and pictures were in those categories. I also displayed a large poster giving the history of Mother Delille, born as a Free Person of Color or a Native Born French Creole in 1812 of a Creole family of wealth – the daughter of Jean Baptiste Lille Sarpy and Marie Josephe Dias. A blown up display of her history written by Sr. Deteige and Charles Nolan in “No Cross, No Crown”, with highlights of her Creole status from her birth to her founding of the Order of the Sisters of the Holy Family in which only Free People of Color (meaning Creoles of Color but not stated) of wealth and good character were allowed to join the Order. An article about the Decuir family who had always lived as caucasian found out that one of their grandparents was a slave – family of Simeon Decuir and that they were in fact Creoles of Color.

I sat in on the seminar held by Dr. Charles Nolan, the author for the biography of Mother Henriette Delille on the last 15 minutes of the session. I had gone there for one purpose and that was to confront Dr. Nolan about the fact that Mother Delille was being portrayed as a Native Born African American instead of the Native Born French Creole American that she was and that he as the author of her biography should have control over how she was being identified. He told me that it hadn’t been substantiated and documented that she in fact was the daughter of Jean Baptiste Lille Sarpy and that there were no records to verify that fact although he collaberated with Sr. Deteige in the writing of “No Cross, No Crown”. But however, the record of her maternal parents and grandparents showed that she was from African heritage. I pointed out that her grandparents were Dubreuil and Dias, which meant to me that besides the African they were French and Spanish. What happened to those ethnicities? Did the Great African blood wash all away those ethnicities which made her a Creole? I think I heard something like she has been adopted by the African-American community along with a lot of other double-speak.

So I asked when someone is adopted by a family or a community then that changes their ethnic identity? So in fact if she had been adopted by a Spanish community then she would have been Native Born Spanish American? Or by an Asian community, she would have been a Native Born Asian American? Native Born to me means the ethnicities that a person is born with an not who they are adopted by. I told Mr. Nolan that I and every Creole with any intelligence are not going to stand by and do nothing about this outrageous misidentification of Mother Henriette Delille. So if she had been adopted by a Caucasian community would she have been a Native Born Caucasian American? That this Master-Slave mentality has to stop and I will do all in my power to see that it does.

After the meeting, Michelle Olinger came over to my table and told me that it wasn’t Dr. Nolan’s doing but that of the Sisters of the Holy Family and that Dr. Nolan intends to write about Mother Delille as the Free Person of Color that she was. However, it doesn’t seem that he will be writing her as a Creole of Color which is what she was when she was born by all meanings of the term – a person of European and African descent natively born in the Louisiana territory – a term originated because of the multiracial background – adopted as far back as 1590 and written in Garcilosa de la Vega’s history on the Spanish West Indies. It would seem that the Sisters of the Holly Family are using Mother Delille’s history and misidentifying her ethnic background in order that she would be more representative of the present-day racial make up of the Order, which in no wise is representative of her original Order from 1842 to 1865, when it was only after Emancipation Proclamation that noviciates of the Black race were permitted to join. And then also if she was not the daughter of Jean Baptiste Lille Sarpy, then why all of the records being given of her brother Jean Delille and his descendants as her relatives?

I am still going on with my Petition of Protest to this whole setup since it would seem that this misidentification of Mother Delille’s ethnic background still persists. If she will be written up as a Free Person of Color by Nolan and the Sisters persist on publishing her as a Native Born African American by newspapers, TV articles, in the Tidings, in speeches and in Catholic Churches across the country and perhaps in all of the foreign countries, then she will go down in history as a Native Born African American because that is what gets the attention of people and definitely will drown out the one or two books that will be written about her.

Mrs. Marion I. Ferreira is a 76 year-old Descendant of Louisiana Creoles.


Copyright © 2002 The Multiracial Activist. All rights reserved.


  1. Date: Sun, December 29, 2002 6:00 pm
    From: George Winkel
    Subject: Letter to the editor: Identity kidnapping Creole Mother Henriette Delille for a “black” saint

    Marion I. Ferreira (E-mail: introduced herself on Monday, December 9, 2002, on the Multiracial Activist guestbook:

    “I am the President of the Society for the Preservation of Creole Heritage and Identity. I have been protesting the fact that the Sisters of the Holy Family of New Orleans and the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans are publicizing Mother Henriette Delille as a “Native Born African American” instead of as the “Native Born Creole American” which she was when she lived in 1812 to 1862.”

    Ms. Ferreira followed this with a copy of the letter sent to her answering her protest, by the Archbishop Alfred Hughes of the Diocese of New Orleans, La.:

    “In you letter of October 11, 2002, I note that you raise the question of the current ancestry of Servant of God Henriette Delille.

    “It is not appropriate for me to enter into these questions directly. I have great confidence in the work of Father Cyuprian Davis, O.S.B., of St. Meinrad Archabbey. When the Church canonizes a saint, she holds up this person as someone who practiced exceptional charity and whose life has a special message for people today. Henriette Delille will not be raised to the altar because she was supposedly two-thirds white and was nice to people darker than she. She will be recognized as a blessed because she was a woman of the poor who did not seek to run away from the life of oppression and petty demeaning regulations by “passing for white”. Because she was a descendant of slaves, she knew how to meet the needs of slaves; as an illegitimate child, she sought to bring black slaves and free blacks to the sacraments and to a Christian life.

    “Henriette Delille was a black woman who loved and served the poor in a society where women of her background and ancestry were exploited and despised. It would indeed be regrettable if a woman who should be a symbol of reconciliation and justice should be turned into a symbol of dissension and internal racial divisions. I ask that you join me in praying for the beatification of Henriette Delille so that she in turn may become a patron for us for justice, harmony and peace.” “Sincerely in the Lord, Most Reverend Alfred C. Hughes, Archbishop of New Orleans,”
    Ms. Ferreira promised to answer this letter in a subsequent guestbook entry.

    Observe the right Reverend Hughes’s key words and phrases, which I highlighted above in the block in blue. Reverend Hughes inserted “run away,” saying Henriette Delille did not run away from her “blackness” (regardless “she was supposedly two-thirds white,” he concedes). Neither did she “pass for white.” The Reverend continued, “Henriette Delille was a black woman … who should be a symbol of reconciliation and justice,” and the Reverend scolded, saying “she should [not] be turned into a symbol of dissension and internal racial divisions.” He scolded Ms. Ferreira for divisive partisanship furthering “internal [black] racial divisions.” And clearly the Reverend chastised “racial divisions,” implying (to him) strictly “black” ones; because “white” people as a group are not in this tug-of-war. They do not know what is going on.

    It is a shame “whites” are not involved in this controversy on behalf of the reality of America becoming multiracial. “White” people could greatly advance the understanding of “multiracial” as heralding the fading-away of the mutually exclusive “races.” This monstrous taxonomy of hypothetical “subspecies” – the plural human “races” – needs to fade. It needs to disappear. Irrationally, falsely, it slanders our kind’s beauty, our unity, and our creation equal – one species. “White” Americans effectively “deconstructed” their own “race” more than 35 years ago, by dismantling all of the ambitious legal mechanisms holding the “white race” “pure,” allegedly. Abolishing Jim Crow racial segregation (1964-65), and proclaiming a constitutional right to marry (Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967) [opinion overturning all “anti-miscegenation” laws, & the “one drop rule” “blood race” statutory definitions required for enforcing them]), effectively dissolved the “white race” which had defined itself by “blood” “purity.” “White,” as a result, no longer connotes exclusive racial membership in a “pure white” elite. Instead, “white” will mean a constantly widening range of hues claiming their rightful place in the “mainstream.” And “white” people joining the tug-of-war over Mother Henriette Delille’s Creole racial identity might materially help dissolve the ugly plural human “races” hypothesis. “White,” biracial, and Creole together, moving Mother Henriette Delille nearer integrating in the mainstream (an empowerment which she no doubt recognized in herself) would materially help everyone else assimilating in the mainstream,” which is all of our American birthright, too.

    My best wishes to Ms. Ferreira. Unfortunately, the politics of census “black minority” identity draw sharper, clearer “race-lines.” In Mother Delille’s lifetime Creole were not so divided as they are now with many confused into thinking themselves reductionistically “black,” and not good enough for their own “white” ancestry and culture. Reverand Hughes’s scolding – his “black” separatist positioning – furthers these ambitions for collective political power. His call is for tightened “race-lines” around the constituents of ambitious “black” (et al.) racial “minority” “leaders.” With Reverend Hughes they envision a “black” racial, political bloc, not a wholesome, integrated community of just people.

    George Winkel

  2. Sister Henrietta Delille Sarpy
    Written by joseph L. Sarpy, on 01-03-2005 14:11

    Mrs. Marion Ferreira, I’m with you all the way regarding the proper id of Sister Henrietta Delille Sarpy as Creole and not merely black. She was multiracial, a fact all envolved should be proud of. It’s the French, Spanish, Black and Indian blood which ran through her veins that made her the wonderful saintly woman she was.

  3. Re: Saint Henrietta Delille
    Written by LSGH, on 17-10-2007 03:17

    My Dearest Bretheren:

    We are “picking up the baton” here in Chicago by raiding parishes & valid cultural insitutions with the petition.



    “Save New Orleans,
    Canonize de Lille.”

  4. I enjoyed reading your article and wanted to tell you that I prayed to Mother Delille for a very special intention that I didn’t think was possible to achieve and through her intercession my prayers were answered. I know she is a saint in Heaven.

  5. I’ve read your article and I’ve been very interested since it seems I’m a descendant of Henriette Dellile family. I always asked myself how can she be African American at looking at her pictures. So I think you’re absolutely right about your point. It doesn’t seems fair to not recognize all of her ethnicity. What she did was great,and I imagine for her actions she was adopted ad an African American,but not explaining that she had spaniah,french and African origins may take to missunderstanding. Just to see the movie is like trying to manipulate the history

    1. Hello Alexandra. I too an a decendant of Henriette’s family. Her brother Jean, is my g-g-g grandfather. I find it sad that we are still a society where we are classifying people by the color of their skin. What disappoints me most is that because of the slave trade, we can only identify her as being of French, Spanish and African decent. Not of Fulani or Wolof, etc., decent. I would like to know more about our African roots, and that was stolen, just like Henriette’s great grandmother was. We have white-washed history by teaching Africa is a monlithic nation, and therefore the individual groups are not important. I see this as the problem. Creoles of all colors played an important role in the growth of what became the United States, and should be recognized and not marginalized by pointing out we have African ancestors, along with European ancestors, and then make it seem we are backward because of it. Shouldn’t a Saint just be a Saint? Does being African American make her a more appealing saint as the Catholic Church struggles to remain relevant?

      1. Hello Hector. Just today I see your reply, you’re absolutely right, I’d love to talk with you longer. Where do you live? How can we get in contact?

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