Last night I was able to visit the Sisters of the Holy Family, a congregation founded by Henriette deLille in antebellum New Orleans specifically to offer women of color the possibility of religious life and mission. This heroic woman, a real beauty (there is one extant photo of her), could have "passed" as a white woman, as her family members did, finding a place in a society that classified black people according their racial makeup in mathematical terms like "quadroon" and "octaroon." Instead of blending into the social networks that her relatives were trying so hard to be a part of, Henriette dedicated herself to the care and education of blacks (free and slave), and so self-identified completely as a black woman.
I gave my St. Paul presentation to the sisters at the motherhouse, which is still being renovated after Hurricane Katrina filled it up with water. You can still see the warped boards and rust in some of the doorways, but other than those hints, you really woundn't have known that the place was just about destroyed. In fact, the sisters from the nearby high (Until Katrina, the school sisters had their own house and schedule; now they are part of the motherhouse community, which has had to make adjustments for the sake of the school schedule.)
Two of the sisters (in their 90's) will be celebrating their 75th anniversary this year. One is Sr. Catherine Henriette (lots of their sisters have the name Henriette), the other Sr. Thecla (in the photo). WE have a lot of Sr. Thecla's, of course, since that saint is associated with St. Paul, but I had never met a religious of another community with that name. Sharp as a tack, Sr Thecla pushed her wheelchair to the front row to follow my talk. And in the middle of the presentation, her cell phone went off! As Mom and I headed to the car, I asked the local superior, "Do all your elderly sisters have cell phones?" She just smiled.
After the talk, the sisters (and their new chaplain) shared their insights and enthusiasm for St. Paul. It was really delightful being with them. Next time I come to New Orleans, I hope to arrange another visit, to maybe interview some of the sisters about their charism and about Mother deLille, whose cause for canonization has already been introduced.