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No Cross, No Crown

Black Nuns in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans

No Cross, No Crown by Sister Mary Bernard Deggs
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Nineteenth-century New Orleans was a diverse city. The French-speaking Catholic Creoles, whether black, white, or racially mixed -- so different from the city's English-speaking residents -- inspired intense curiosity and speculation. But none of the city's inhabitants evoked as much wonder as did the Sisters of the Holy Family, whose mission was to evangelize slaves and free people of color and to care for the poor, sick, and elderly.

These women, whose community still thrives, are portrayed in an account written between 1896 and 1898 by one of their sisters, Mary Bernard Deggs, who shortly before her death made it her mission to record the remarkable historical journey the women had taken to serve those of their race. Although Deggs did not officially join the Sisters of the Holy Family until 1873, she was a student at the sisters' early school on Bayou Road and thus would have known, as a child, Henriette Delille, the founder and first mother superior of the Sisters of the Holy Family, and the otherwomen who joined her.

This account captures, in a most graphic way, the founding of theSisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans in 1842 and the difficult years that followed. It was not until 1852 that the foundresses were able totake their first official vows and exchange their blue percale gowns forblack ones (and it was 1873 before they were permitted to wear a formalreligious habit). Shortly before Delille's death in 1862, Union forcesseized the city, and Delille's successor, Juliette Gaudin, faced direeconomic circumstances. The war and postwar years economically devastatedNew Orleans and its population. Freed slaves poured into the city,unintentionally adding themselves to the already overwhelming mission ofthe sisters. Those were the poorest and most uncertain years the sisterswere to face.

We know very little about Sister Mary Bernard Deggs herself, but her history of the early years of the Sisters of the Holy Family, written more than a century ago and reproduced here in edited form, makes it clear that today's community of women -- their dedication to the poor, to education, to the care of the elderly and orphaned -- comes from a long and complex tradition that grew in response to the social needs of "theirpeople."

Indiana University Press; October 2001
265 pages; ISBN 9780253108593
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Title: No Cross, No Crown
Author: Sister Mary Bernard Deggs; Virginia Meacham Gould; Charles E. Nolan