The Sisters of the Holy Family, ca. 1899. Photographic print. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, American Memory.
The photograph shows the Sisters of the Holy Family in 1899, grouped on the porch of an unidentified building. On the bottom row, fifth from the left, is Mother Austin Jones, who served as Mother Superior from 1891 until her death in 1909. Many early archival records date from her tenure, especially since, in 1906, she oversaw the purchase of 123 acres in Gentilly. Here would grow St. Mary’s Academy’s new school, St. Paul the Apostle Church and School, the House of the Holy Family, Delille Inn, Lafon Day Care Center, Lafon Nursing Facility, and the current Motherhouse.
The Sisters had an international reputation early in their work, one that we can discern when discussing the photograph itself. It was first viewed by people outside the small circle of the New Orleans community when the great sociologist W. E. B. Dubois had the idea of showing a broad overview about the lives of African Americans in the United States. He would do so, for the Paris Exposition of 1900, by amassing photographs. These images would reveal how the descendants of slaves were not so different than other Americans. They wore the same types of clothes, posed for the same types of photographs, and worked at some of the same jobs. On the other hand, he thought the photograph would also reveal something of segregation and of the harsher realities of their lives. They would remind viewers of multiple interpretations that could be made about any society.
Dubois and others displayed 363 photographs under the title the “American Negro” and organized them into albums, called Types of American Negroes, Georgia, U.S.A. and Negro Life in Georgia, U.S.A. Yet, many other photographs from other states were also collected. One of these was the photograph here, which is also used on theNola4Women website to introduce the current exhibition, One Heart, One Soul, The Life and Legacy of Henriette Delille.
There is no extant record, no letter asking for the photograph or such, that tells of Dubois’s interest in the order Delille founded in 1842. Yet, archival records show that the Sisters knew of the photograph and its display in Paris at least by the 1920s. Dubois and others were said to have written directly to people and institutions known to them to gather materials. The only other photograph displayed from New Orleans is that called “Corner in the home of African American teachers, New Orleans, Louisiana.”
The Archives of the Sisters was not founded until the 1970s but documents were always carefully guarded. At the location of the Mother House on Orleans Street, there were two or three trunks that were always included in a list of assignments for the nuns. Here were copies of bills and receipts to the city, as well as photographs. These trunks were moved to the Chef Menteur Motherhouse in 1955 to become the beginning of the collection. Today images of the sisters displayed in the current exhibition as well as on countless websites show the archival record of their work beginning in the 1840s and 1850s.
The religious order itself is one of only three such groups of African American nuns. In addition, the now Venerable Henriette Delille is the first United States native-born African American whose cause for canonization has been officially opened by the Catholic Church.
The group photo here allows us to look into the faces of the sisters in 1899, as well as view the house on whose steps they stood. Visit the exhibition at the Old Ursuline Convent to see if you can identify this building.