Saints of New Orleans
Why the city of the Saints may really be the city of the saints
By George Gurtner
Since the Vatican canonized the first saint from America — St. Elizabeth Ann Seton — an inordinate number of saints (and near saints) have been born in or became famous for their work in New Orleans or Louisiana. With this issue, Catholic Digest explores the lives of some of these men and women.
Mother Henriette Delille
Many of the poor still come to the motherhouse of the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans just as they did 160 years ago, when the Order was a fledgling group of dedicated Sisters led by Mother Henriette Delille. They come for food, for clothes, for assistance to make it through another day. Often they come just to have somebody to talk to. And today’s Sisters, just like their predecessors, never turn anybody away.
“The work of Mother Henriette is alive today,” says Sister Eva Regina Martin, SSF, superior general of the New Orleans-based Order, which has 111 Sisters working with the poorest of the poor through- out Louisiana; Texas; Arkansas; California; Washington, D.C.; Belize; and Honduras. “Mother Henriette enabled us to focus on what are the real, authentic things in our life... the things that really matter. People talk so much about the environment today, but if you love an authentic Christian love, you transform that environment right where you are.”
Henriette Delille was born in 1813 in New Orleans, when it was wracked by yellow fever. She was a “free woman” of color, meaning not all white nor all black. She was trained in literature and music by her mother to perpetuate the racially based system of plaçage, by becoming the common-law wife of a wealthy white man. In short, Henriette Delille grew up without a choice in her own future; she was powerless. And all around her were equally powerless people. People of color and American Indians were the poorest of the poor... and the most mistreated.
“I cannot hope for change,” young Henriette Delille said. “I must be the one to advocate for change, and to work for change. The place to begin is in teaching these poor people that this is not the life that God intended for them. When my time comes to an end, God will ask, ‘What did you do for the least of these?’ I cannot just turn my back on these people.”
Henriette devoted all of her life to educating and caring for poor people of color and American Indians, and to preaching the Gospel. She drew like-minded women to herself and her way of life, and in 1836, she, along with several Creole women and one French woman, founded a small, unrecognized group they named “Sisters of the Presentation.” In 1842, the Order was renamed the Sisters of the Holy Family and recognized by the Vatican.
Mother Henriette continued her work with the poor until her death in 1862.
“We believe she’s on the fast track to sainthood,” Sister Eva says. “One miracle has been approved and she was made Venerable on March 27, 2010. Right now all of the Sisters are praying for a second miracle.”
There was little that could be considered spectacular about 12-year- old Charlene Richard (“REE- shard”) when she lived in the little community of Richard more than 50 years ago. But today, an ever- increasing number of people are pressing her cause for sainthood. People see something special about the way she handled her suffering from the leukemia that ultimately took her life.
“I see Charlene as a witness for people of all ages,” says Father Joseph Brennan, who spent days ministering to Charlene before her death in 1959. “She wasn’t different in any way, except when the crisis came in her life, and it came very early — she accepted it with faith and trust and love.
“I didn’t really know her until those last two weeks of her life, in the hospital. I spent a great deal of time with her and she was always smiling and praying... Her complete submission ... was without boundaries. It changed my life forever.”
Charlene’s total submission to God changed the lives of her neighbors, too, who first prayed for her, and then to God through her.
One woman sentenced to death by a diagnosis of “inoperable cancer” prayed through Charlene Richard and miraculously was cured. “Doctors were mystified,” says Brennan. “It was then that word of Charlene spread like wildfire. It was then that people first started talking about sainthood for her. Since that time, there have been other healings, and they are being studied.”
And since her death, not a day goes by that her tomb in St. Edward Cemetery in Richard is not covered with fresh flowers as travelers (an estimated 10,000 each year) from Louisiana and other parts of the country stop to pray at her grave. They come seeking miracles and thanking her for miracles and cures they attribute to her. Lafayette Diocese Bishop Charles Jarrell has appointed a priest to form a study commission, and a “Friends of Charlene” organization that also is pushing for her canonization receives waves of requests for information about Charlene, prayer cards bearing her likeness, prayer cloths, and “anything Charlene,” according to Bonnie Broussard, head of the organization.
“It’s incredible,” says Broussard. “There are people who were not even born until long after she died, but still they have heard of her and about the miracles that people attribute to her, and they call and request information about her. They’ve even opened a ‘Charlene Richard Mission House’ in Thailand. It’s a big house with six rooms that houses volunteers who go over to work in the orphanages there, orphanages for children with HIV-AIDS. Charlene has an enormous following.”
“Just before she died,” says Brennan, “Charlene told me that she would pray for me when she got to heaven. In my eyes and in the eyes of many, many people, Charlene Richard is already a saint. We’re just waiting for the Church to catch up.”