Tricycle

Who Was Henriette DeLille?

Friday, November 7th, 2014 by Tricycle
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Actress Danusia Samal playing Maude Lynn in The House That Will Not Stand

Marcus Gardley’s The House That Will Not Stand features a cast of seven women and one mysterious man. Throughout the play, audiences see the individual characters develop to tell us a story of desire, jealousy, murder and voodoo. Gardley based his female characters, who are all very different from one another, both on women from his own life and on famous female figures from historical time periods.

One of Gardley’s characters, Maude Lynn (portrayed at the Tricycle by Danusia Samal), who is one of the daughters of the matriarchal Creole Beartrice and her white partner Lazare, is inspired by famous Louisiana nun, Henriette DeLille.

DeLille was born in 1813 and lived until 1862, right through the time period in which The House That Will Not Stand is set. Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, DeLille was brought up, like Gardley’s Albans family, as a Creole ‘free woman of color’, with French, Spanish, Italian and African ancestry. Her mother was a Placée, meaning that she, as a ‘free woman of color’, was contracted into a common law union with a white European man, in which she was his legal mistress and therefore obtained social, legal and financial status within the community. The Plaçage system was incredibly popular within New Orleans Culture during this time and a young Henriette DeLille was groomed to take her own place within the system.

With training from her mother in French Literature, Music, Dancing and Nursing, DeLille’s path into the Plaçage system, typical of girls of a similar upbringing, looked set. However, at the age of fourteen, a well educated and devoutly Catholic Henriette began teaching at a local Catholic school. Her experience of teaching allowed her to develop a devotion to caring for and educating children and the poor. Young DeLille developed a differing opinion on the Plaçage system that proved to be a great source of conflict between her and her mother. Despite the great wealth that DeLille had seen her mother live in, and that she herself had grown up in thanks to the union between her parents, her views on the system were that these extra-marital relationships violated the Catholic sacrament of marriage.

The House That Will Not Stand at The Tricycle Theatre. Photograph by Mark Douet  I80A3478

When Henriette’s mother passed away in 1835, Henriette was granted control of her assets. After providing for her mother’s care, DeLille used the remaining money from the sale of her mother’s property to start up a small, unrecognised congregation of nuns in her local community. What started as a congregation of seven young Creole women and one young French woman, eventually developed into the Catholic Order of the Sisters of the Holy Family. At its height, the congregation was served by four hundred members and still has over two hundred today. DeLille’s work with and devotion for the Creole community and slaves in New Orleans lead to an estrangement between her and her brother, who’s usually successful attempts to pass as a white European man were damaged by his sisters local fame. Henriette became a frequent sponsor and Godmother to many mixed race babies at New Orleans Baptisms and Christenings, many of which were held at St. Augustine’s church. This church features in Gardley’s play and still stands today.

DeLille was the first native-born Creole whose cause for Sainthood has been officially agreed by the church. ‘Mother Henriette DeLille’ was declared venerable in 2010. At the time of her death, friends of Henriette attributed her end to a lifetime of service, hard work and the poverty that she had lived in due to her sacrificing her own inherited wealth in order to care for others.

Gardley’s Maude Lynn takes inspiration from DeLille in her devotion to Catholicism and to the caring of others and in her scepticism of the Plaçage system.

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