Thursday, November 18, 2010
Henriette Delille: Rebellious Saint
Colette Stelly and Elsie Martinez are in my SCBWI group. Their book just came out and this is an article about it. And I, along with Julie Gonzalez and David Walker critiqued and gave feedback on it at a writer's convention. Too cool. So is the book.
Book puts Mother Henriette Delille on teens’ radar
November 13, 2010 New Orleans LOCAL CLARION HERALD Page 3
By Beth Donze
During their frequent visits to the Catholic Book Store, Elsie Martinez and Colette Stelly were struck by the lack of saints related literature for the teenage and young-adult audience. The offerings, the women observed, seemed to skip from books for primary-grade children to those for full-fledged adults. “Even in the (available) books for the little kids, the artwork was nonprofessional, or they would depict the saints using this saccharine style of writing,” Stelly noted. “It would be this goody-goody depiction of the saints instead of showing them as real-life people.”
Wanting to provide something more substantial, the women collaborated on “Henriette Delille: Rebellious Saint,” a fictionalized biography of the New Orleans born founder of the Sisters of the Holy Family – the second-oldest African-American congregation of religious women.
A great woman gets her due.
Released in August, the coming-of-age story is set against the very real backdrop of pre-Civil
War New Orleans, complete with its yellow fever epidemics, lively market atmosphere and largely French-speaking inhabitants. Fifteen easy-to-read chapters trace how Mother Delille, born in 1812 as a “free person of color,” discerns her vocation from a young age to help children, the sick and the elderly – especially the most neglected group of all, slaves.
“When we found out Mother Delille’s cause for canonization was being introduced in Rome, we said, ‘She’s from here, for heaven’s sake, and people don’t even know who she is! Let’s make her known,” said Stelly,
a retired associate professor of French at Dillard University. “One of the things we tried to do in our book was to make her like a real person – to show her rebelling against the social order.”
Young Henriette, whose own mixed-race family kept slaves in their French Quarter home, repeatedly goes against the grain by teaching catechism to slave children, sponsoring slaves in their reception of the sacraments, and caring for elderly slaves relinquished to the streets by their masters. Events witnessed firsthand, such as a slave sale, the punishment of a runaway slave and the baptism of an orphaned slave baby, lead the teenaged Henriette to wonder, “Did the slaves know that God loved them?”
“Slaves were not allowed to go to school – they would not allow slaves to read or write,” Stelly notes. “(Mother Delille) took care of anybody – white, black, purple – it didn’t matter.”
Book exposes color bar.
Readers will learn “a lot of history about what life was like 200 and some years ago, and within that historical context they will learn about a valiant woman who fought for what she believed in,” Stelly adds. “That’s why we called it ‘The Rebellious Saint.’ She rebelled against just about everybody.”
Some aspects of mixed-race life in New Orleans are likely to surprise – and disturb – 21st century
readers. Because state law prohibited interracial marriage, so-called “alliances” were commonly arranged between white men and Creole women of color without the benefit of any civil or sacramental contract
between the two parties.
The racially charged lexicon of the time labeled those of mixed race as “mulatto” (half-African); quadroon (one-fourth African); or “octoroon” (one-eighth African). Delille, an octoroon who shunned the matchmaking balls of the Creole caste system, was educated by the Dames Hospitalières, a society of French women
who operated the city’s only school for girls of color.
“She always identified with the slaves, which drove her mother bananas,” Stelly said. “Her mother always said, ‘We don’t mingle with slaves.’”
Segregation is also what propelled Mother Delille to found her own order of sisters in 1842. Because state law prohibited the races from living together, she was not permitted to join an existing religious community,
although free people of color and slaves worshipped freely at St. Louis Cathedral and at St. Augustine Church in Tremé, the latter established in 1842 for white and black French-speaking Creoles.
Oral history relied on
With very few primary resources at their disposal, the authors scoured libraries, television documentaries and the Historic New Orleans Collection to immerse themselves in the history of the city. Many of the stories in
the book were passed on orally over the course of the 168-year history of the Sisters of the Holy Family.
“There were books written about Mother Henriette, but there’s not a lot of documentation on her because these nuns spent all their time taking care of people,” Stelly points out.
The co-authors wrote independently, meeting weekly at Martinez’s dining room table to stitch the chapters together and make edits. The book is Stelly’s first published work, while Martinez is the co-author of a 1986
book, “Uptown/Downtown: Growing Up in New Orleans.”
“The nice thing is that our writing styles are similar, so I think it’s a seamless book – you won’t be able to tell who wrote what,” Stelly said, noting that she wrote chapter 8 first “because it was such an intriguing story.”
Entitled “The Big Splash,” it tells of the 1832 arrival to New Orleans of Marie-Jeanne Aliquot, a white laywoman from France.
When Aliquot falls into the Mississippi River, she is saved from drowning by a slave, which seals her determination to kick through racial barriers to help the enslaved and become one of Mother Delille’s most helpful allies in the white community.
A ‘humble servant of slaves’
The book includes the only surviving piece of writing from Mother Delille herself – a prayer inscribed in her prayer book: “I believe in God. I hope in God. I love. I wish to live and die for God.”
“She was exactly 50 years old when she died – she burned herself out,” said Stelly.
Hailed as a “humble servant of slaves” in her obituary, her legacy includes Lafon Nursing Home, the nation’s oldest home for the elderly, and St. Mary’s Academy, founded in 1870 as the country’s first high school for black girls. The book closes with a prayer for Mother Delille’s beatification, which many observers say is imminent.
“Then we have to pray for miracles so she becomes a saint,” Stelly said, noting that feedback to the book has been “very positive,” with one reader suggesting that it be made required reading for all Catholic high school students in the archdiocese.