HISTORY

  • Cierra Chenier

Catholicism in Black New Orleans


St. Louis Cathedral

From some of the lewd, crime and alcohol ridden streets of our city, to spending Sunday's both in the Dome and in Mass -- New Orleanians possess the duality of being both saints and sinners.


Background

New Orleans is regarded as the most Catholic city in the United States, with the highest population of Black Catholics. Why so? Well, the underlying reason for everything in the Black community of course: slavery. Code Noir, "Black Code," was introduced in 1724 with the purpose of regulating the lives of slaves and free Blacks in Louisiana. One of its many laws was that all slaves were to be baptized as Roman Catholic, resulting in generations upon generations of Black Catholics, arguably by force rather than by choice.


African religions and traditions, such as voodoo and the use of rhythm and drums in worship was unheard of to the Europeans that colonized the area. These religions and traditions were often demonized, forcing enslaved Africans to make do with what they were presented with and what was already flowing in their veins.

"A city ordinance designated one public space where Black people, both enslaved and free, were allowed to congregate under police supervision -- Congo Square." 

Sunday afternoons in Congo Square were, and continue to be a religious experience unique to the Black community. It is the way some Black New Orleanians reach God and the ancestors through the beat of the drum -- the same beat of the drum that has laid in our hearts since our birth. Other enslaved Africans and free people of color, like Marie Laveau, combined Catholicism with the religions of Haitian and West African ancestors, creating a very different form of voodoo from other regions. Laveau is known for aligning voodoo with Catholicism, a brilliant tactic that allowed the enslaved and free people of color to practice their faith through both of their identities.

Now in 21st century New Orleans, Catholicism is the denomination for many Black families, just as it was for Black Creoles and free people of color. It is said that if your family is Catholic, that is an indication of how long your family has existed in New Orleans. Although the voodoo has become more of a private practice and Congo Square is no longer filled to capacity every Sunday, the African roots can be heard in the worship of many Black Catholic churches; from St. Maria Goretti in New Orleans East, Corpus Christi in the 7th Ward, to the historic St. Augustine Church in Tremé, the oldest Black neighborhood in America.

"The Tomb of the Unknown Slave" at St. Augustine Catholic Church

Religion and Resistance

Mother Henriette Delille was a Black, French Creole woman from New Orleans. She was a free woman of color and the great-granddaughter of an emancipated slave. Due to her racial status, she was a part of the plaçage system, a common arrangement in which white, wealthy Creole men would "marry" free women of color, ensuring the monetary care of the future children, but was not recognized as an actual marriage under the law. Essentially, these men would feed their fetishization and return back to their families, with the only responsibility of making sure their "colored mistresses" were "cared for."


Henriette Delille

Many of Delille's family members were passé blanc ("pass for white") and identified as white. This was common for some fair skinned individuals, not necessarily from shame, but for survival; to somehow finesse privileges from a system so anti-Black, that we were denied basic rights. Delille did not identify as Black on the census, a decision that even got her denied to become an Ursuline or Carmelite nun (both white only at the time).


This was one of her many acts of resistance. She went on to condemn the plaçage system and its disregard of the church's teachings on the sanctity of marriage. In 1835, she sold all of her property and used the money to fund the congregation, Sisters of the Presentation. They cared for the sick, the poor, and educated both the enslaved and free people of color.


The sisters changed their name to the Sisters of the Holy Family, and founded the first and oldest Catholic nursing home in the United States (Lafon Nursing Home) an all-girls school (St. Mary's Academy), and the best daycare of all time, Lafon Day Care Center (where I dressed as Henriette Delille for a school play). While St. Mary's and Lafon Nursing Home are still located on Chef Menteur Highway in the East, Lafon Day Care Center next door did not reopen after Hurricane Katrina.


Sisters of the Holy Family

Henriette Delille is now on the path to canonization, and would not only be the first New Orleanian, but the first Black American to become a saint in the Catholic Church. As of right now, she is declared as "venerable," a status that no other New Orleanian has ever reached in the church. I could not imagine anyone more worthy of sainthood than a Black woman from New Orleans that gave up a life of privilege and used it to fuel her resistance to oppression. She selflessly dedicated her life to the enslaved, children, the poor, and the sick.


The Black experience in itself is spiritual -- no matter what you believe in or what traditions you follow, whether you ask the loa or the saints for intercession, or if you practice your faith through ancestral altars or church pews; representation matters. I believe in the importance of seeing images and hearing stories that look like us and relate to us, giving us something to hold on to and aspire to be during times of oppression, just as our ancestors did throughout slavery.

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