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Venerable Henriette DeLille canonization guild to announce new postulator

The sainthood guild for one of New Orleans' best-known Black Catholics is hopeful for a miracle as a major transition takes place in the 35-year old cause.

Stained glass in the Henriette Delille Prayer Room at St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, Louisiana. (John Hanley)

Venerable Henriette DeLille, the foundress of an order of Black nuns headquartered in New Orleans, will soon have a new postulator in Rome with the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Causes of Saints.

The news came in late January, after a trip conducted by members of DeLille’s canonization guild to the Holy See. There, they met with officials to help choose a new representative following the retirement of Dr. Andrea Ambrosi, who led the efforts for DeLille from the early 2000s until 2021.

One of those officials was the head of the Pontifical Academies of Sciences, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, who visited DeLille’s congregation, the Sisters of the Holy Family, during a trip to New Orleans in October.

“He is a devoted friend to Henriette Delille,” said Virginia Gould, a participant in the Rome visit who first announced the news.

“Our success in identifying a new postulator was achieved through his efforts.”

On January 22, Gould noted that Sr Alicia Costa, SSF, who was elected superior general shortly before Turkson’s visit stateside, would soon sign official documents finalizing the transition. The name of the individual is expected to be released thereafter.

Sister Sylvia, David and I are back from Rome. But the evening before we left we had dinner with Cardinal Turkson, or as...

Posted by Virginia Gould on Sunday, January 22, 2023

In the meantime, the sisters worked with an unofficial postulator, who is helping to review a recent claim of a miracle brought about by DeLille’s intercession. If accepted, the healing would clear the way for Pope Francis to beatify the historic Creole pioneer, whose cause was first opened in 1988 by Archbishop Philip Hannan—the first ever for an African American.

It is only the latest miracle claim for the cause, with the first coming in 2005 from Texas. While that alleged healing was not corroborated by Vatican representatives, the present claim (from Little Rock, Arkansas) has been under investigation since 2017.

Both claims had been handled by Ambrosi, who also represented a number of other prominent sainthood causes for American Catholics. His retirement is one of multiple recent losses for the Sisters of the Holy Family, whose stalwart DeLille promoter Sr Doris Goudeaux died in November, just ahead of the 160th anniversary of DeLille’s own death.

Gould said that the process of finding a new postulator was not an easy one, given the unique story of DeLille and her order.

“We had to find someone who clearly understands how slavery and racism shaped the life and ministry of Delille. Not everyone in the heavily European Church does,” she wrote.

“We were encouraged after meeting a potential postulator who has ties to Brazil and to Africa.”

DeLille, whose congregation is the second-oldest surviving order of Black Catholic nuns, is one of seven African Americans on the path to sainthood. She founded one of America’s oldest Black Catholics schools, St. Mary’s Academy in New Orleans, and has long been celebrated as an icon of Catholic education and anti-racism, having been subjected to discrimination in her secular and religious life despite being only one-eighth Black.

While some of her family members passed for White, she chose to embrace her ethnic background and serve the poor and neglected, including free and enslaved Black children in New Orleans, until her death in 1862 during the Civil War. The sisters later expanded their work into Black communities around the country.

DeLille was the subject of a 2001 Lifetime movie starring Vanessa Williams, “The Courage to Love,” as well as a 2017 documentary produced by the Archdiocese of New Orleans and recently made available on YouTube.

There are presently no beatified or canonized African-American Catholics, but DeLille was declared Venerable by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger and a seminarian with the Josephites.

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