Skip to content

New postulator named for Venerable Henriette DeLille sainthood cause

The Creole Catholic pioneer's case in Rome will now be handled by a Dutchman who heads multiple other causes for African Americans.

Dr. Waldery Hilgeman speaks with archdiocesan officials in New York City while working on the cause of Servant of God Dorothy Day in 2018. (Catholic New York)

NEW ORLEANS — Dr. Waldery Hilgeman has been named the new postulator for the sainthood cause of Venerable Henriette DeLille, foundress of the nation’s second oldest surviving order of Black Catholic nuns, the Sisters of the Holy Family.

The Archdiocese of New Orleans announced the news earlier this month, thirteen years after DeLille was first declared “Venerable” by Pope Benedict XVI. It also comes six months after members of her sainthood guild visited Rome to meet with a postulator recommended by Ghanaian cardinal Peter Turkson, chancellor of the Pontifical Academies of Sciences.

The cause’s former postulator, who guides the canonical process leading up to canonization, was Dr. Andrea Ambrosi, who retired in 2020. After going three years without a permanent replacement and utilizing an unofficial stand-in, the guild members met with Turkson in New Orleans last fall.

“We told Cardinal Turkson that we had been without a postulator for nearly three years, so he told us he would recommend someone,” Sr Sylvia Thibodeaux, SSF, told The Clarion Herald, the archdiocesan newspaper for New Orleans.

“He told us how the process would work and that we should come to Rome.”

Hilgeman, a Dutchman in his early 40s who has handled the Roman phase of various sainthood causes, is the postulator for the causes of at least two other African Americans—Servant of God Julia Greeley, a famed microphilanthropist and evangelist in Denver at the turn of the 19th century, and Mother Mary Lange, the Baltimore-based foundress of the oldest order of stateside Black Catholic nuns, the Oblate Sisters of Providence.

Perhaps portending good news on the horizon for DeLille’s cause, Lange was declared “Venerable” by Pope Francis just this past June.

“Dr. Hilgeman is their postulator, so that speaks well of him,” Thibodeaux told the Herald.

Stained glass of Venerable Henriette DeLille at St. Louis Cathedral Basilica in New Orleans. (Francesco/Flickr)

Virginia Gould, a DeLille devotee who took part in the meetings in Rome, noted the then-unnamed postulator’s connections to Brazil and Africa. Hilgeman has handled the causes of Servants of God Cyprien and Daphrose Rugamba and Companions (Rwanda), Julius Nyerere (Tanzania), and Antoninho da Rocha Marmo (Brazil), among many others.

Since 2005, the DeLille guild has been seeking Vatican approbation of alleged miracles wrought by her intercession, according to their website. Should officials at the Holy See approve one, it would clear the way for the pope to beatify DeLille—potentially a first for an African American. A second approved miracle would allow for her canonization as a saint.

At least one of the claimed miracles took place in the Diocese of Little Rock and has been investigated since 2018. DeLille’s cause was first opened 30 years prior by Archbishop Philip Hannan of New Orleans and was itself the first for an African American.

DeLille is one of seven African Americans on the path to sainthood and is responsible for founding one of America’s oldest Black Catholics schools, St. Mary’s Academy in New Orleans. She has long been celebrated as an icon of Catholic education, Creole history, and anti-racism—having faced discrimination in her secular and religious life despite being only one-eighth Black.

While some of her family members passed for White, DeLille 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.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

Want to support the work of BCM? You have options.

a.) click to give on Donorbox

b.) click to give on Facebook