Henriette Daz de Lille, a Catholic nun and philanthropist, was born of African ancestry on March 11, 1813, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Her great, great grandmother was brought from West Africa as an enslaved person. Her mother, Marie-Josèphe Daz, was a quadroon and a free woman of color, and her father, Jean-Baptiste Lille Sarpy, was a common-law husband because marriage between Black and white races was illegal in Louisiana at the time.
Cecile Bonile de Lille and Samuel Hart de Lille were Henriette’s two siblings. On the 500 block of Burgundy Street in the city’s French Quarter, all of the children were raised as Roman Catholics. Unlike her siblings, however, who passed as white, Henriette always referred to herself as a free person of color.
At the age of 14, Henriette began teaching at the St. Claude School for Colored Girls in 1827. She was there until 1835. After learning of her mother’s severe mental illness that year, she inherited the family’s assets, including both money and real estate, and began working as a caregiver. She sold the estate’s remaining property to found The Sisters of the Presentation, an order of Black Catholic nuns.
Henriette gave birth to two children between 1835 and 1837 while in a plaçage relationship, in which wealthy white European men lived with Black women. Regardless of her status, she spoke out against the plaçage system, which she saw as a violation of the Catholic sacrament of marriage. Instead, she followed her “spiritual calling” of educating the enslaved and caring for the sick, poor, and elderly.
By 1842, she had changed the name of the Sisters of the Presentation to the Sisters of the Holy Family and was living at St. Augustine’s Church with two lifelong friends, Juliette Gaudin, who was born in Cuba of Haitian parents, and Josephine Charles, who was born in France. Henriette established an apostolic ministry throughout New Orleans during this time and served as the order’s first Mother Superior.
On November 17, 1862, Henriette Daz de Lille died of tuberculosis in New Orleans, Louisiana. She was 50 years old. By 1909, the work of this trailblazer and the Catholic order she founded, the Sisters of the Holy Family ministry, had grown to 105 sisters with a student body of over 1,300.
Recognizing her contributions, the Vatican began considering Henriette de Lille’s canonization in 1989. Pope Benedict XVI declared her “venerable” in 2010, 148 years after her death, which is a Catholic who has attained a high level of sanctity but has not been canonized.