Henriette Delille vs. Absalom Jones

Whether or not you missed us this weekend is immaterial. Because we're back! This week we'll be finishing up the opening Round of 32 and kicking off the Saintly Sixteen on Thursday.

Today Henriette Delille faces Absalom Jones, as two modern(ish) American saints go head-to-head.

In case you missed the Friday results, Benedict the Moor defeated Nino of Georgia 68% to 32%. He'll face Euphrosyne in the next round. Now go vote!

Henriette Delille
Henriette Delille (1813-1862) had a very specific education. She was the Creole daughter of a freed woman and a European father in New Orleans. Her parents had a common-law marriage under the plaçage system. In this system, European men entered into a common-law marriage with women of color. When the man became financially established, then he would marry a white woman. There was an understanding that he would continue to provide food, shelter, and education for children of the common-law marriage.

Henriette lived in the French Quarter, and she was groomed to follow in her mother’s footsteps and expected to marry a European man in New Orleans society. As a young woman, her mother educated her in literature, music, medicine, and dancing. Henriette wore fine gowns and made her rounds at the balls, while her mother hoped that she would make a match that would increase their family’s security.

When Henriette was a teenager, she gave birth to two sons. Both of them died at a young age. Henriette also began to teach at the local Catholic school for girls of color. During this time, her dedication to the poor in the city grew, and she began to question the plaçage system.

While her mother tried to entice Henriette with the trappings of New Orleans society, children in poverty captured Henriette’s attention. While the family tried to educate her so that she would be accepted in higher classes, she used her knowledge to educate slaves, even when the law prohibited their education. Henriette’s brother urged her to stop working with the Creole community, because it highlighted the family’s identity as formerly enslaved. While her family’s property was supposed to establish her family in New Orleans’ society, Henriette Delille used it to educate, care, and shelter.

Eventually, Henriette Delille found her identity in another family. She started the order of the Sisters of the Holy Family that was made up of free women. They provided nursing care for the elderly and a home for orphans. The order grew after Delille’s death, and the parochial schools that the order founded became instrumental in educating children in the Jim Crow South.

Collect for Henriette Delille
Almighty God, You gave to your servant Henriette special gifts of grace to understand and teach the truth as it is in Christ Jesus: Grant that by this teaching we may know you, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

—Carol Howard Merritt


Absalom Jones
Absalom Jones was born in Sussex, Delaware, in 1746. After being sold to a farmer, that owner sold Absalom’s mother and the rest of his family to another slaveholder and moved with Absalom to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, when Absalom was sixteen. Absalom’s owner was a member of Christ Episcopal Church, and when Absalom met and married his wife Mary, the priest of Christ Church married them in 1770.

Because children took the mother’s status in the colonial states, Absalom purchased his wife’s freedom so that their children would be born free. When Absalom was thirty-eight, his owner finally freed him. Absalom added Jones to his name since enslaved people were typically forced to take their owners’ names, and upon freedom, assumed their own names.

The Methodist church allowed Black people to attend and lead, and Absalom Jones and his friend Richard Allen were among the first African Americans to be licensed to preach in the 1780s. But being allowed to do something doesn’t mean being granted full authority and equality. When informed that they would be segregated to the church’s perimeter and balcony, Jones and most of the other African Americans walked out.

In 1787, Jones and Allen founded the Free African Society, an organization created to provide the African American community’s social, economic, educational, and spiritual needs in Philadelphia. The Free African Society established a strict code, including dues paid by all members to benefit those in need, mainly widows and orphans. The first African American church grew out of this organization’s commitment to Christian community and ethics. When the yellow fever epidemic hit the Philadelphia area in 1793, twenty times more Blacks than Whites helped those afflicted, thanks to The Free African Society. When the Society began to establish The African Church in 1792, Jones founded the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas.

Ordained a deacon in 1795 and a priest in 1802, Absalom Jones was the first African American priest in the Episcopal Church. In 1973, the Episcopal Church established February 13 as the feast day for remembering and honoring Jones’ ministry and life. No matter your race or ethnicity, we’ve all been blessed by his relentless pursuit to diversify the Episcopal Church.

Collect for Absalom Jones
Set us free, heavenly Father, from every bond of prejudice and fear; that, honoring the steadfast courage of your servant Absalom Jones, we may show forth in our lives the reconciling love and true freedom of the children of God, which you have given us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

—Miriam Willard McKenney


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Henriette Delille: Wikicommons, public domain
Absalom Jones: Raphaelle Peale / Public domain


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151 comments on “Henriette Delille vs. Absalom Jones”

  1. When their vestry denied them a pew
    Jones and others declared they were through;
    Then this group, once enslaved,
    Many plague victims saved.
    So I hope that you’ll vote for him too.

    1. I enjoy reading your poems, I just wonder how you come up with them. Thanks for being a light!

  2. This was a tough one. Both lives are commendable -- else why would they be in Lent Madness -- but in the end my vote went to Jones because I see him empowering other people organizationally as well as serving them.

      1. Here too Sue!
        I really wish both of them could move on , but my choice had to be Absalom today
        for that same reason.

        1. Same era African-American saints up against one another for scarce spots in the Saintly is an unhappy challenge indeed! As a Black Episcopalian in the most special city of New Orleans, I am so torn.

          1. agree that this was an unfortunate match-up that knocks out a promising African-American in the early round.

          2. In looking back on this match-up (I'm writing this on Wednesday the 10th), it occurred to me that by putting both African-Americans in the same bracket, the SEC made sure that there could be no hint of racism in the outcome. (Or very little, if one considers Henriette as being of white ancestry.)

    1. This was too close so I dug deeper. In one site was stated that Henrietta continued to possess her own slave, Betsy, whom Henrietta freed in her will after she died. Therefore despite Henriette’s great deeds of mercy and kindness, I must vote for Absolom.

      1. Yes, Lent Madness needs to do a better job on the accuracy and completeness of their biographies

      2. I am glad this issue has come up, because however one ends up voting, it is in facing the least convenient facts that one gains the most thorough understanding. My own understanding, which has been evolving for a half century and which I trust will continue to expand but which I also know to be a prisoner like my self of time and space, is that the particular evil of slavery was not the exploitative economic relationship, which is not a very distinctive evil, but the accompanying and "justifying" denial of the full humanity of its victims. This account still does little to decide my vote, though.

  3. Difficult choice, both were definitely leaders in the world od “”everyone “ welcome.Perhaps overly simplistic, but in truth simplicity probably is one of the better ways to go when trying to make decisions of faith

  4. Although both candidates are certainly worthy I am going with Jones, the first African-American Episcopal priest. Must admit being an Episcopalian myself did enter into the decision.

    1. Well, perhaps Henriette would have been a priest, except for, well, you know.

    1. Good call, Scott! Why put the (only?) two Americans of African descent in this year's bracket against each other right at the start, the year of all years? Both of these holy people are potential Golden Halo winners. It seems the SEC likes to set up pairs of folks with some similarities (e.g. Theodora vs. Theodora), but this one seems just wrong in the midst of the racial reckoning we are in the midst of in the US.

      1. I agree, I have a family connection to Nola, and some things in common with Ms. Delille, easy choice, but I resented not being able to vote for both!

      2. Right, Scott Madison and Jack Zamboni... SEC: you seem to be having a serious lapse of judgment, in pairing-by- supercilious-characteristics (thematically, as St. Celia observes), which serves to force out one of these two fine saints.

      3. Colorful language is usually appropriate for a limerick. However appreciate your reluctance about putting it in the Lent Madness comments.

      4. I’m with you, Jack Zamboni. Thanks for you impassioned comment. Usually I am pretty much live and let live with the sometimes (IMO) unfair matchups but this is just plain mean!!!! Such worthy candidates - neither deserves elimination in the first round.

        1. Just wondering - Should the first round match ups be determined by the SEC's opinion of worthiness or unworthiness?

      5. Totally agree. Almost did not vote. I am late in voting and sorry the male is ahead. Both should move on.

    2. No kidding. I was trying to write a limerick a la Cabot about the heinousness of forcing a decision like this before breakfast on a Monday, but I couldn't keep the, um, colorful language from making the opus a little bit inappropriate. Postponing my vote for later and my limerick indefinitely.

    3. For years Mad pilgrims complained that the brackets placed some apocryphal ancient legend against a modern reformer and were impossible and made no sense, and now Tim and Scott are carefully placing "like" against "like" and categorizing the brackets thematically, which has to be a lot of work, and now Mad pilgrims are . . . complaining. I cannot help but think that Tim and Scott must very much be feeling that they are "damned if they do, damned if they don't."

      1. Good point -- but within the Mostly Modern part of the bracket, they still didn't have to put the two African-Americans head to head in the first round. If this pairing resulted from one or two rounds of voting, my reaction would be different.

        1. Further on this, other pairings within that part of the bracket don't put people from similar demographics head to head in the first round. This was unneccessary. But, SEC, please know that I am very grateful for your work and know it's challenging -- not least, at times, we in the commentariat.

  5. Such a hard choice. When I first read the names, I thought surely I would vote ffor Absalom Jones whose story I have long known. But when I read the stories, my mind and heart were changed. Henriette Delille's choice to leave behind such privilege as was available to her at the time and put her education and gifts to use for the benefit of those at the bottom of the Caste system (yes, I'm in the midst of Isabel WIlkerson's must-read book of that title). wins my vote today.

    1. I have long appreciated the work of Jones and Richard Allen. As a longtime lover and resident of New Orleans, however, I learned today of Henriette and am completely enthralled by her story. She gets my vote especially because she is the “undersaint” here.

    2. I agree with Jack Zamboni. I see that Absalom Jones's ministry was saintly, indeed, but he was called to a community of free African-American people, and he had his free male friends and his own wife and children (also free people) for aid and comfort in his life. Henriette DeLille had to go against the wishes of her birth family, and after her own two children died in infancy she had no husband or children of her own for aid and comfort. She ministered to slaves, old people and orphans, all of them more powerless than free black men. And of course, as a mixed-race woman herself, she had precious little freedom in early 19th Century United States, yet she managed a life that made a huge difference for Christ.

      1. Absolutely this! Amy, you put into clear and convincing words what my heart felt at reading about these two saints today. I, too, choose Henriette today - for these very reasons!

      2. Am not takings sides. However there is no excuse for ignorance about the life of an African American on the Calendar since 1979. Please try to get your facts straight about Absalom before February 13, 2022.

  6. I want to speak to the manager! These two amazing Saints shouldn’t have to face one another in the first round because they each pushed boundaries until those lines disappeared! Can’t vote until I think about this all day.

  7. I'm sure that Absalom Jones will win today and if he was pitted against someone else I would probably vote for him. But Henriette Delille gets my vote today. She bucked the system: educated slaves and formed a sisterhood that cared for the elderly and orphans. This sisterhood formed many schools that educated children that otherwise would not have gotten any education.

    1. I agree with your reasoning, Michelle, and it's also important to recognize Henriette Delille because of International Women's Day.

    1. Yes. Henrietta denied her family and picked up her cross to follow Jesus’ example. What an example of a woman stepping out of her circumstances and doing what she knew was right. Henrietta is an example to all women and girls that they can follow their hearts.

  8. My bracket is already blown. I feel that Henriette never had a chance again Absalom. So, I'm throwing in my vote for Henriette. This is the first that I have ever heard from her and as the underdog, she needs the love. Plus, like Absalom, she is an incredible saint. How do you choose from so much goodness.

  9. Henriette Delille started an order, and schools that educated poor people of color that they might become the Absolom Jones’ of the world. Do you think her lack of popularity speaks to the sexism and classism still extant in both the country and the Episcopal church? Hmm.

    1. No, I don't think that is why Henriette Delille is not better known . . . most Episcopalians (clergy and laity) know nothing about our own Religious Orders, much less Roman Catholic ones.

  10. I voted for Henriette Delille, someone who seems to have defied the stereotype of the "tragic mulatto." I find myself confused by the use of the term "Creole," which by my understanding applies to white children of the Spanish and Portuguese, born in the New World. The Creoles were the settlers and had power and status, whereas mixed-race people were mestizo or mulatto. If Henriette's mother was herself a mulatto placee, then Henriette would have been a quadroon. The brothels of New Orleans were filled with octoroons, very light-skinned "black" women, very high priced. American racism was such that these categories were carefully kept, and the freed "coloreds" were driven out viciously. The French Code Noir, which regulated slave conditions until the US took possession of Louisiana in 1803, stipulated that children took the status of their mother; if she was a slave, they too would be slaves. Henriette was born just ten years after the end of the Code Noir and its replacement by American law. I see Henriette's work educating poor black children as an effort to undermine both white supremacy and placage by resisting the legal condemnation of children to their mother's abased status. By educating them, she gave them entry to a symbolic world and a life of the mind. I note with interest that a white Frenchwoman tried to join Sister Henriette's order but by American law was prevented, as no white woman could join an order of women of color. Given American rage against the very existence of freed blacks, I find Venerable Mother Henriette's effort to educate black children remarkable, commendable, worth my vote.

    1. Thank you-you taught me a lot I didn’t know. Interesting things. I wish I had voted for Henriette.

    2. Well stated facts without anger or blame. I can see the injustice of the times because I did not feel the need to defend my self. True learning can’t happen when one is fearful. Henriette is a worthy role model for all races and all women.

  11. When Absalom Jones was last featured in Lent Madness, I voted for him until he was voted out. This time I read about the unknown Henriette Delille, and was so impressed by her intellect, her dedication to nursing care and orphans, her turning her back on the plaçage system that would have given her a easy life. I also had never heard of that system, in spite of the fact that my father was born in New Orleans, and my grandmother loved to tell stories about life in New Orleans. Top that with the fact that I'm studying French right now, this time I will vote for Henriette Delille.

    1. If you like mysteries, you might enjoy the series of books featuring Benjamin January (free man, son of a placee, educated in France, physician and musician, in c.1835 New Orleans) by Barbara Hambly. First one is "A Free Man of Color".

  12. I want this to be a tie!
    Then we would force the SEC to have to make the choice that is so difficult today!
    Let them suffer!

  13. Whilst learning about Henriette was a gift in and of itself. I had to go with Absalom Jones
    Born not far from my home in Lewes, DE on plantation land that is now incorporated ad a part of Milfird, there is every probability that he was baptized by the then rector of my parish, St. Peter's, Lewes, as ours was the only parish that baptized slave babies at the time. Our St. Peter's chapel is named for him and we have recently been gifted with a beautiful icon of him...

    1. Good morning, John Michael! Greetings from the Steiner family, former fellow parishioners of yours in Lewes. Having worshipped at St Peter’s and being from New Orleans, my allegiance is torn today. Will have to reflect a while before voting.

  14. I echo the comments above
    In a world where we aspire to
    privilege over the tugs of love
    how could you not vote for Henriette
    But when it is all too clear
    the need for courageous founders is dear
    to cast a vote for Absalom, is a must
    to compel a choice so early
    will rightly provoke a fuss

  15. A difficult choice! I'm sure this will be a close race. To learn more about the bizarre caste system in pre-Civil War New Orleans, read The Feast of All Saints by Anne Rice. It's a melodrama, but I learned a lot about placage and the free people of color in Louisiana.

    1. I agree. I wish they had not been paired. Probably among my two favorites of all the Saints so far.

    2. I learned about this system from Barbara Hambly's excellent mystery, A Free Man of Color, and its sequels, set in early nineteenth-century New Orleans.

      1. I recommended the same series above before I saw your post. Excellent tip for readers!

  16. What St. Celia said better than I could. A Jones is already so welll kn999owmwm, I went with the woman. Both most commendable though.

  17. We need a separate losers bracket and the have the winner of the losers play the winner of the winners. Is there some sense in that?

    1. Yes. We may not agree with the pairings. So we should take care to research these Saints on our own as well. Don’t blame the messengers.

  18. I'm glad to learn about Henriette, who also left a lasting legacy. But I'm in my 15th year of serving in Absalom Jones' own Diocese of Pennsylvania, and will cast my vote for our hero, whose stubborn loyalty to the Episcopal Church continues to bear fruit -- including, at long last, our first African American Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry. I also have great admiration and respect for our sisters and brothers in the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Zion Church. Founded by Absalom's friend and colleague Richard Allen, the AME Church continues to champion diversity, justice, and opportunity for all -- and they were also early adapters to including women among their clergy!

  19. Way back when, when I first saw the 2021 Bracket, I bet on Absalom Jones for The Golden Halo (AKA: "no-brainer"). But I enjoyed learning about Henriette Delille and gladly voted for her today #InternationalWomensDay.

  20. I agree with others that it seems wrong to put the only two people of African descent against each other this early in the competition. Both worthy, I'm going with Henriette. She seems to be the underdog and, I suspect, needs my vote.

    1. Perhaps the only two Americans of African descent, however not the only two people of African descent. Bartolome, last Friday, and Euphrosyne/Smaragdus and Theodora, both of Alexandria. Alexandria's in Egypt and Egypt's on the north coast of Africa..

  21. Every year the Diocese of New York holds a celebration at the Cathedral in honor of Absalom Jones (this year was virtual, of course), and I have attended and volunteered at it a number of times. So familiarity this time breeds admiration. We always make it a celebration of the entire diversity of the Diocese, having performers from different churches giving us a glimpse at their culture along with a buffet which also features specialties of different cultures within the Diocese. So to thank him for the good times, I am casting my vote for Absalom (I also love his name!).