Will the First African-American Saint come from New Orleans?

Will the First African American Saint Come from New Orleans?

By Teresa Bergen

During a recent trip to New Orleans, I was startled to learn there are no African American saints. Linda Harris was showing me around Saint Augustine Church when the matter came up.

“Really?” I ask Harris. “No African American saints?”

Not yet. While there are at least a dozen black saints, including the Peruvian Saint Martin de Porres and the Egyptian Saint Moses the Black, no African Americans have been canonized.

Saint Augustine Church is in New Orleans’ Treme neighborhood, just outside the French Quarter and about ten blocks from the river, on the corner of Henriette DeLille Street. The street is named for the woman many New Orleanians hope will be the first African American saint. “We do believe and pray,” she says. “We hope that will happen real soon.”

DeLille was born a free person of color in New Orleans in 1813. In 1842, she founded the Sisters of the Congregation of the Holy Family, the country’s second order of African American nuns (The Oblates were the first). DeLille ministered to free people of color and to slaves, earning the nickname “Servant of Slaves.” Pope Benedict XVI declared her venerable in 2010. Now she’s two confirmed miracles away from full-fledged sainthood.

“The Sisters of Holy Family are a strong presence,” Harris, the church secretary of Saint Augustine’s, tells me as we gaze at a portrait of DeLille. Their mother house is in New Orleans East. The sisters manage schools and nursing homes in New Orleans, other parts of the country and even as far away as Belize.

The Importance of Saint Augustine Church

Henriette DeLille had close ties with Saint Augustine Church. In fact, when she died in 1862, her funeral was held here.

The Treme was originally a plantation. When the land was divided in 1790, free people of color bought most of the lots. “This Treme neighborhood that we’re in is one of the oldest communities that allowed African Americans to purchase property,” says Harris, who’s a Treme native. “It’s considered by many the oldest African American neighborhood in the country.”

The church was built in 1841, established by free people of color. The Ursuline nuns donated money for the church grounds. When I visited in December 2016, banners celebrating the church’s 175th birthday hung above the altar.

The French influence of early New Orleans is apparent, from the John 4:10 quotation painted in French above the altar, to the stained glass windows depicting French saints. “We have a particular fondness for Saint Joan of Arc,” Harris tells me. As patron saint of New Orleans, Joan is popular throughout the city.

Two of the beautifully painted Stations of the Cross are missing. During Hurricane Katrina, they were out for repairs in an area that got eight to 12 feet of water. “So they’ll never be seen again,” Harris says.

The Saint Augustine community is proud to be honored by the new National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian. The museum has several pieces from the church in its collection, including a votive candle holder and a kneeler.

War of the Pews

One of the famous stories about Saint Augustine Church is the “war of the pews.” While the church was being constructed, Harris tells me, “People were buying pews so they could sit with their own family on a pew and sort of be guaranteed it every Sunday.” Whites and free people of color tried to buy up the best pew real estate. “So it was a war of the pews,” Harris says. For once in New Orleans, the free people of color won. “They bought slightly more than the whites,” she says. “The free people of color bought pews for the slaves as well. So in that light, it was sort of a place of integration, way back then.”

Tomb of the Unknown Slave

Outside the church is one of the most moving monuments I’ve ever seen. The Tomb of the Unknown Slave, dedicated in 2004, is made of grave crosses, chains and shackles. As it says on the accompanying plaque, the monument is dedicated “to the memory of the nameless, faceless, turfless Africans who met an untimely death in Faubourg Treme.”

“It’s a very powerful piece,” Harris says. The slaves that died on the former Treme plantation are very real to her, not just part of long ago history. “Historically, while they may not all have felt as cared for in life, they appreciated a decent burial, and a decent burial for family members.” The monument was designed to help soothe those abused, neglected and forgotten souls. “It acknowledges and shares with its significance anyone who perished due to mistreatment, no health insurance, those type things. So it’s shared with all who passed away and had no real burial place.”

Integrated into the City

Church membership has dwindled a bit since Katrina, with about 340 members currently registered. But the church’s historical importance and its connections to the French Quarter Festival organization, the Jazz and Heritage Office and the New Orleans Marketing and Tourism Commission spread its reputation beyond regular attendees. “They support us,” Harris says. “And they appreciate the fact that while we are a Catholic church, we embrace the music and culture of New Orleans.”

The French Quarter Festival sponsors the Satchmo Summer Mass here in conjunction with the Satchmo Summer Festival in August, celebrating Louis Satchmo Armstrong. Armstrong, who lived in the neighborhood, had ties to the church. Saint Augustine also participates in the citywide Christmas New Orleans Style events, with three concerts in December of 2016.

The church draws tourists – black, white, some from as far away as Asia. Thanks to social media, Harris says, word about her church’s significance reaches around the globe. The gospel choir is also a big draw. “We have a very spirited service, while it is a Roman Catholic mass,” she says. “And it’s nice to have tourists in town and also have a place of worship they can come, as well as just partying and drinking and what have you.”

Tourists come and go, but New Orleanians continue to attend every week. Sometimes members of DeLille’s order, the Sisters of the Holy Family, attend mass and other church functions. “They’re an aging order like most religious orders, male and female,” Harris says, admiring the nuns that are still carrying on DeLille’s legacy. “Sometimes they walk in on crutches. But they get more done in a day than you or I.”

As an inner city church, and an old church, Saint Augustine struggles with repairs and maintenance. “But we love our old parish,” Harris says. “We love our old church.”

For more from Teresa Bergen


Heroic Early Catholic Women Who Shaped Montreal

By Teresa Bergen

As a travel writer, I’m fortunate to often have tourism professionals help me devise itineraries. My contacts at Tourism Montreal were especially helpful in routing me through a bunch of religious museums and churches in 2 ½ days. But I was a novelty to my tourism hostess, who said travel writers never ask to go the places I wanted. And I was the first to ask her to schedule Mass into my itinerary.

Quebec has a rich Catholic heritage, but centuries of Catholicism resulted in a backlash against the church. My informal research is based mostly on talking to museum guides, Uber drivers and tourism professionals, but here’s what I learned: 

After a few hundred years of Catholicism dominating French-speaking Canadians while the Anglos got all the good titles, positions and money, the French were tired of such an invasive Church influence. Several people I talked to mentioned that priests pressured women to produce a baby per year, and would publicly shame those who didn’t.

This all led to the so-called “Quiet Revolution” of the 1950’s and ‘60s. “In the ‘60s, people started leaving the church because they said the religion is too severe,” said Nancy Prada, director of the Museum of the Sisters of Providence. In the 1960’s, some museums even tried to soften the artwork, to make early church figures seem friendlier and less intimidating. But it was too late. By the end of the ‘60s, Quebecers had abandoned the Church in droves.

I was surprised when one of my Uber drivers told me that many words from Catholicism are used as swear words. This was later confirmed by my tour guides and by Wikipedia.

Reclaiming Important Quebec Catholics

I quickly deduced that the non-religious locals considered me a bit of a freak to be so interested in their Catholic past, but in a friendly and tolerant way. So I quietly made the rounds of Catholic attractions, appreciating the rich history and art. I couldn’t get to all of Montreal’s museums and churches. But here are a few that I visited and found intriguing. I was especially interested in early women’s contributions to Quebec.

Musee des Hospitalieres

This museum records the history of the Hospitallers of Saint Joseph, an order founded in LaFleche, France. It’s a good place to get a feel for Jeanne Mance, one of Montreal’s founders. “She was very exceptional for the period,” my guide, museum volunteer Carolyn Grant, told me. Mance was a pious Catholic, but neither married nor a nun. Born in 1606, Mance served as a volunteer nurse during the Thirty Years’ War, honing her skills on the battlefield. In 1640, she heard a cousin speaking about Canada. “It awakened her vocation,” Grant said. Angelique Faure de Bullion, a rich French woman, gave Mance the money to establish a hospital in Canada.

Mance started dispensary inside Fort Ville-Marie (Montreal’s original name, after the BVM) in 1642. In 1645, she opened the first hospital outside the fort. It had five rooms, including one six-person sick ward. Mance had come to care for the “savages” indigenous to New France. Instead, she tended to colonists wounded by unhappy Iroquois.

After ten years, Mance was ready for some help. In 1658 she sailed to France to bring the first three Hospitaller sisters back with her.

This museum is fascinating if you’re interested in early Quebec, the lives of nuns, and/or medical history. My favorite part was the display of relic artwork. The nuns practiced a craft of rolling up gold-edged papers and making intricate 3-D art pieces with them. They’d insert relics into these paper rolls. The relics were displayed annually for the Feast of Relics. This was a double indulgence day. If you bought an indulgence, you got twice as much for your money. This practice lasted into the 1950s, Grant told me.

Marguerite Bourgeoys Museum

Saint Marguerite Bourgeoys, who was canonized in 1982, founded the Congregation of Notre Dame of Montreal. This was one of the first uncloistered religious communities. As Bourgeoys wrote, “The Blessed Virgin was never cloistered. She did indeed withdraw to an interior solitude, but she never turned away from any journey where there was some good to be done.”

Bourgeoys is credited with being the first teacher in Montreal. She taught native children, white settlers’ children, and the famous filles du roi, or king’s daughters. These last were young women, mostly orphans, who Louis XIV sent from France to make wives for the white settlers.

The museum has a lot to see. The first room is full of doll dioramas depicting Bourgeoys’ life, made by nuns in the 1940’s. It’s almost like reading a 3-D comic book. I took a 20-minute guided archeological tour, where you can still see ashes from the fire that destroyed the old chapel in 1754. The rebuilt stone chapel is also called the Sailors Church. People came to the chapel to say prayers before crossing the sea. Visitors can climb many stairs up to the tower, where you get a close-up look at the pair of 1892 angels perched atop the chapel.

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