No Cross, No Crown: Black Nuns in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans available in Paperback
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- Indiana University Press
Among New Orleans’ most compelling stories is that of the Sisters of the Holy Family, which was founded in the 19th century and still thrives today. The community’s difficult early years are portrayed in a remarkable account by one of the sisters, Mary Bernard Deggs. While Deggs did not officially join the community until 1873, as a student at the sisters’ early school she would have known Henriette Delille and the other founders. It was not until 1852 that the sisters were able to take their first official vows and exchange their blue percale gowns for black ones, and it was 1873 before they were permitted to wear a formal religious habit. This community of mixed race faced almost insurmountable obstacles, but the women remained unflagging in their dedication to the poor, to education, and to the care of the elderly and the orphanedto the needs of "their people."
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No Cross, No Crown
Black Nuns in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans
By Mary Bernard Deggs, Virginia Meacham Gould, Charles E. Nolan
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2001 Sisters of the Holy Family
All rights reserved.
MOTHERS HENRIETTE DELILLE AND JULIETTE GAUDIN
1842 Founding of the Sisters of the Holy Family.
1847 Incorporation of the Association of the Holy Family.
1851 Purchase of a permanent home on Bayou Road by the community's foundress, Henriette Delille.
1861 Civil War begins April 12.
1862 Union troops occupy New Orleans May 1. Death of Henriette Delille November 16. Juliette Gaudin assumes role of mother superior the same day.
1863 Death of Jeanne Marie Aliquot January 1. Abraham Lincoln signs Emancipation Proclamation.
1865 The South surrenders during the spring.
1866 Death of Father Founder Etienne Rousselon. Gilbert Raymond succeeds Rousselon as ecclesiastical superior. Race riots in New Orleans.
1870 The community divides on October 4; a second or split house is established on Chartres Street by Josephine Charles. Juliette Gaudin remains mother superior of the old cradle house on Bayou Road.
DEGGS begins her historical narrative with an account of the difficulties of the early days. She tells us that the community was founded in 1842 by Henriette Delille, Juliette Gaudin, and Josephine Charles, although Delille was always identified as the principal foundress, or "mother," of the community. In fact, in her history of the community written in the early twentieth century, Sister Mary Francis Borgia Hart states that Delille was chosen by Father Etienne Rousselon as the community's superior. She also explains that when the foundresses took their first official vows, on October 15,1852, they were allowed to exchange their blue percale gowns for black ones, and that Henriette was officially named superior and mistress of novices.
While the women changed their dress, and even their status, in 1852, their mission did not change. In describing themselves and their origins, they were constant in their descriptions of their work. They said in the constitution of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary that their work was to instruct the ignorant, assist the dying, and care for the needy. Their first mission, what lay at the heart of their foundation, was evangelization, and especially the evangelization of "their people," New Orleans' slaves and free people of color. Soon after the women joined together to live in community, in 1842, they began to take the elderly and orphaned into their house. In 1852, they founded a school for girls. During the years that elapsed between the foundation of the community and Delille's death, many other women joined them. However, only a few remained after Delille's death in 1862.
Between the twenty years that expired between 1842, when the women began the arduous task of founding a religious order, and 1862, when Delille died, conditions in New Orleans grew steadily more difficult for free people of color. The largest number of free people of color in New Orleans during those years were Creoles who were tied by heritage, blood, language, and Catholicism to the city's white and slave Creoles. New Orleans' Afro-Creole population emerged during the colonial period, and by 1803, when Louisiana was ceded to the United States, it had grown to occupy a significant and discrete place in the city's Creole population, numerically, culturally, and economically. During the decades that elapsed between the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and 1830, free Creoles of color continued to strengthen their social and economic positions. While neither their demographic nor their legal position improved, the economic standing of those who remained did. By the antebellum period, they held a significant number of professional and semi-professional positions in the city; and they continued to accumulate property. Yet despite their relative stability and success, that segment of the population faced political, economic, and social decline after 1830.
Beginning in the 1830s city and state policymakers began to pass a series of laws meant to more closely regulate slavery and to restrict the positions and activities of free people of color. Notwithstanding their status, free Creoles of color were not exempt. They responded to these degrading and threatening laws in a number of ways. Some migrated to the countryside; others went to France, the Caribbean, or Mexico. Still others passed into the white community. Most, however, chose to stay in the city, and struggled to hold on to their positions. It was within that political, economic, and social climate that Delille and the women who joined her succeeded in founding a community of women religious.
As the Deggs journal makes clear, Delille and her co-foundresses faced difficult conditions during the 1840s and 1850s. Yet conditions were only to worsen after that. Shortly before Delille's death, Union forces seized the city, and her successor, Juliette Gaudin, faced dire economic circumstances. The war and postwar years economically devastated New Orleans and its population. Freed slaves poured into the city, unintentionally adding themselves to the already overwhelming mission of the sisters; some estimates put the numbers at 10,000. Those were the poorest and most uncertain years the sisters were to face. The social, economic, and political climate was constantly shifting under their feet. The population to which they ministered faced uncertainties in every area of their lives. The death of Delille complicated matters even further. Deggs tells us that several women, nearly half, left with the foundress' death. The women who did remain split into two groups.
By the 1870s, economic circumstances had improved, but the sisters faced other difficulties. The years during which Juliette Gaudin led the community were tumultuous for the city's blacks. Not everyone of African descent welcomed the changes wrought by the war and Reconstruction. Color, race, and condition sometimes segmented people who otherwise had similar ideals. It was not unusual for those who had been free before the war, especially those who were mostly racially mixed, French speaking, educated, and Catholic, to segregate themselves from the newly freed people in the city. That was especially obvious in the debates of black politicians, but it did not stop there. For some, class and condition clearly outweighed race.
Is there evidence that the divisiveness in the black community in New Orleans was repeated in the convent of the Sisters of the Holy Family? Deggs writes extensively about a split that occurred in the community in 1867, but she does not even hint at its cause. It is within Borgia Hart s history of the community that the story emerges. Writing from documentation and oral tradition, Borgia Hart tells us that the sisters divided over the admission of Chloe Preval, a freed slave, into the community. It appears from the account of the split that the then mother superior, Juliette Gaudin, and her cofoundress, Josephine Charles, held differing attitudes about Prevals acceptability as a candidate. For one thing, the early rule of the community stated that only women of free and elite families could be accepted. The authors of the rule, Henriette Delille, Juliette Gaudin, Josephine Charles, and Etienne Rousselon, recognized that the entrance of any woman not acceptable to the increasingly racist white population would threaten the existence of the community. The formation of a community of women religious by free women of color was acceptable, if not ignored, as long as the women were from well known and prosperous families tied to influential members of the white community. The Church fathers in New Orleans, Vicar General Etienne Rousselon and Archbishop Antoine Blanc, understood that family connection, relative wealth, and education were fundamental to the successful establishment and continuation of any such community. That had been the case in France for centuries, and it stood to reason that a community of "creole women or women born in the Americas" stood the best chance for success, especially if they were free women of color, if they were affiliated with the city's more influential citizens. Furthermore, free and elite Creoles of color in New Orleans often held slaves. It appears at first glance that Delille, Gaudin, Charles, and the other free women who joined them fully supported the race-based system of slavery that defined life in the city. Henriette Delille s ancestors had been slaveholders, and indeed Delille herself was listed as the owner of the slave Betsey for many years, although it appears that she inherited her and was then prevented from freeing her by the increasingly restrictive manumission laws passed in Louisiana. Other visible signs might suggest that the founders of the Sisters of the Holy Family were as racially rigid as were the white slaveholders who increasingly aimed laws at them. The women educated girls from free and elite families in an elementary school. The girls were also taught music and sewing. Their most important subject, religion, was taught separately but was integrated as well into their other subjects. Yet, while the women taught free girls of color at least the rudiments of reading and writing, in keeping with the traditions of the Church which reflected the legal system of Louisiana, they restricted their work among slave girls to instruction in religion. Though, even as the women appeared to share the racist mentality of their white neighbors, other factors hint that they were hemmed in by the laws and mores of slavery. It was against the law to educate slaves and even illegal to marry or evangelize them without the consent of their masters or mistresses. The women who founded the Sisters of the Holy Family followed societal prescriptions as they defined their mission.
Yet one must ask if they did so out of necessity or if they acted discreetly against the racial conventions that visibly defined their work. There is so little evidence left from the early years that it is difficult to speculate that the women embraced an anti-slavery ethic before the war. But a few clues do suggest that they followed the prescriptions of their society overtly but rejected them in their attitudes and less public actions. In one of the most telling actions, the sisters soon after the conclusion of the Civil War eliminated the rule that only women from previously free and elite families were eligible to enter.
The entrance of Chloe Joachim Preval into the community is the most telling example. Soon after the end of the Civil War, Father Gilbert Raymond, as the father superior of the community as well as its spiritual director, approached Mother Superior Juliette Gaudin about the prospect of receiving Preval, the housekeeper and a former slave, into the community. Neither Archbishop Odin nor Raymond believed that Preval's former status or duties as a housekeeper would compromise her identity as a Sister of the Holy Family. Gaudin stalled. Growing impatient with her, Raymond requested that the entire community vote on the matter. Sisters Josephine Charles, Elizabeth Wales, and Marie Magdalene Alpaugh voted to receive Preval. The rest voted against her. In order to subvert Mother Juliette's authority, Raymond rented a small house on Chartres Street, between Peace and Esplanade, and sent the three sisters who had voted to receive Preval there, appointing Charles superior. The Chartres Street community accepted Preval in 1869.
One of the histories of the Holy Family Sisters suggests that Gaudin rejected Preval because she was recently freed and had dark skin. According to other evidence, her hesitance was more practical. Preval continued to be Archbishop Odin's housekeeper. The tradition of women serving priests as housekeepers was not unknown, especially to the French priests in New Orleans. There are many examples. Some of the best known are Les Apostoliques, an order of women that was founded at the beginning of the century in France in order to provide care for the domestic needs of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. The Marianite Sisters of the Holy Cross were founded in Le Mans, France, in 1841 in order to serve as housekeepers to the Fathers and Brothers of the Holy Cross. While Gaudin would have been well aware of this custom, she would also have recognized that the hard-won status of her sisters would be threatened if their identities were recast as housekeepers. Why, Deggs asks, would a woman want to enter the community to do housework when she would be doing the same in the world? Indeed, during Marie Magdalene Alpaughs tenure as superior she interrupted the service provided to the archbishops. That is, except for Chloe Preval. Preval continued to work as a housekeeper until, enfeebled by age, she retired to the orphanage to care for the infants. She died of old age, sitting in a rocking chair with an orphaned infant in her arms. Chloe Preval, the former slave, served the community throughout most of her life, becoming one of its most valued and useful members.
The evidence about attitudes of race, status, and condition represented in this journal and elsewhere in the archives of the Sisters of the Holy Family can be interpreted in a number of ways. Deggs clearly suggests, for instance, that lighter skin was desirable. She also stereotypes ethnicity. For instance, she writes that Sister Anne Fazende s father was Indian and her mother was Spanish, and continues, "We are all very well aware of the bad tempers and malicious habits of the Spanish, French, Africans, and Indians. Just to think of what it must be like to have a mixture of the four!" Yet despite some evidence to the contrary the writings in this journal suggest that the sisters more closely identified with the radical black Creole leaders who emerged during the Civil War and who continued to lead the movement for equal rights through Reconstruction. It was that group that insisted upon equal rights but who also used their ties to the white community to effect them.
The sisters clearly sought to bring slave women and free women together. Deggs recounts the poignant stories of slave women and their mistresses eating side by side at the same table; of slave and free children schooled together. It was only with emancipation and the end of the war that the sisters had the opportunity to begin to break down the barriers that had been so sturdily erected as slavery found its footing in Louisiana.
New Orleans, La., March 18,1894
When our dear community commenced, it was very poor, but was blessed with many graces and also many crosses which are said to be the best of all other graces, as no cross, no crown. But many years of hard struggle proved their good wills. Only after thirty or more years of pain and trouble were those noble women consoled when one after another came to join them in their good and fervent work! As the gospel says, many are called but few are chosen. Out of ten who came, only four remained. When the time was set to make their vows, many excused themselves saying that it would be better to go to France.
New Orleans, La., March 19, 1894
Sisters of the Holy Family, founded in the year 1842 and their rapid progress with its many crosses which are the key of all graces and the flowers and stones of the crown.
The founders were Miss Henriette Delille, Miss Juliette Gaudin, Miss Josephine Charles, and Very Rev. Etienne Rousselon. Rousselon was then vicar general to Archbishop Antoine Blanc. Both the archbishop and Father Rousselon did all that was in their power to assist the sisters during their lives and left them in good hands at their deaths. Our dear Mother Juliette had been almost raised together with Henriette. They dearly loved each other during their whole lifetimes and had never been one week without each other.
These good sisters first came together in community in an old house on St. Bernard Street. They did not remain in that house but a few months. It was intended for a home for poor, aged women, but a wounded man was one day brought to them by the parish trustees. As they could not refuse to take him, both Henriette Delille and Juliette Gaudin retired to a small place on Bayou Road, and waited some twelve to eighteen months for good Father Rousselon to build them a house on Bayou Road near St. Claude Street. They lived there and did much good work from 1842 until 1883. Many were the souls brought to God in that humble house and many a pain and sorrow did the women pass in their first ten years, but they never lost hope. Many were the times that the foundresses had nothing to eat but cold hominy that had been left from some rich family's table. It is not necessary to say a word about their clothing, for it was more like Josephs coat that was of many pieces and colors darned, until darn was not the word. In spite of the charity of their many kind friends, they suffered much owing to the strictness of the times.
Excerpted from No Cross, No Crown by Mary Bernard Deggs, Virginia Meacham Gould, Charles E. Nolan. Copyright © 2001 Sisters of the Holy Family. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
Part I. Mothers Henriette Delille and Juliette Gaudin
Part II. Mother Josephine Charles
Part III. Mother Marie Magdalene Alpaugh
Part IV. Mother Marie Cecilia Capla
Part V. Mother Mary Austin Jones
illustrations follow page XXX