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Holy Family mission: local schools, Africa and Belize

NCR Staff
New Orleans

Holy Family Sr. Sylvia Thibodeaux admits it. When the sisters elected her last year to head the congregation, they were getting something of an unknown quantity. Not because she is a mystery -- she was professed into the order in 1960 -- but because she was gone for so long. In Africa.

For 18 years, until 1993, Thibodeaux worked in Nigeria helping to create in the Benin City archdiocese the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, whose numbers now exceed 75. They have 10 novices.

After Africa, Thibodeaux spent a sabbatical year in Rome studying, and in her spare time researching the early papers on the Holy Family’s determined founder, Henriette Delille, toward her canonization cause.

The all-black Sisters of the Holy Family succeeded in coming into being only after two attempts to create black and white sisters’ congregations had been prevented by law. In the early days, the Holy Family sisters had to use laypeople as a legal “front.”

Being black religious women has sharply focused the sisters’ work -- outreach to slaves, to black urban and rural poor through schools -- and early made its mark on Thibodeaux.

After being educated “by Mother Seton’s sisters, where we were all sisters together,” and a spell teaching in New Orleans, Thibodeaux went in the late 1960s to integrate a Tulsa, Okla., Catholic secondary school. It was a searing two years among Catholics who mainly reflected their racist Bible Belt surroundings. These Catholics included the other nuns with whom Thibodeaux had to work, one of whom told Thibodeaux she was uncertain she could use “the same facilities” as a professional black woman.

“These were women,” recalled Thibodeaux, a founding member of the National Black Sisters’ Conference, “who had chosen the same way of life I had, yet whose views were incompatible with Christian values. I grew up in the South and I knew it. But I struggled with that incompatibility.

“Eight hundred Catholic students, eight of them black,” she said. “It was not a nice reception. I faced a hostile parents’ committee, their lack of experience with a professional black person -- they knew blacks only as domestics from the north of the city.

“I taught history, used Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle as a text, had the parents at the door.” They didn’t want their children to have that sort of exposure, Thibodeaux said.

When Martin Luther King was slain, said Thibodeaux, the Oklahoma Bible Belt exulted with celebration. “The next day I walked into the classroom,” she recalled. “The kids had transformed the classroom into a King memorial. They redeemed my experience with the Tulsa community.”

From Tulsa to riot-torn Boston with the archdiocese association of urban sisters and priests. And more schools. “Turbulent years,” was Thibodeaux’s summary.

The Nigerian years were not tranquil, but a variation on the Tulsa and Boston experiences. This was post-civil war Nigeria. Thibodeaux’s task, alongside the Nigerian church in Benin City, was to help raise up an order of women religious who would be drawn from all the tribes -- many of which recently had been warring with each other -- “to live and work in harmony unconditionally. That’s what I set out to do; I wanted them to reflect what is good in Nigerian womanhood.”

“They reflect that goodness through pastoral and social work care,” she said, “as an uplifting presence to women.” They’re involved in catechetical and evangelization work and weave their own habits, “patterned on what a Nigerian woman fully into womanhood would wear. They are the only Nigerian nuns whose habits are not patterned on the European style.”

The challenge for Thibodeaux, as their cofounder, she said, was to help them “without letting them imitate me.” She believes the proper balance was achieved so they could form their vision themselves.

Back in the United States, Thibodeaux served as vicar general, 1994-’98, until her recent election. The congregation’s priorities, she said, “are responding to the aging members, taking care of them here,” pushing new visions in line with dwindling numbers -- and Belize.

For long-term essential care, the congregation has an infirmary on the motherhouse property (“We need to make the motherhouse more user-friendly for the physically challenged”) and a licensed skilled nursing home across the street.

Financially, the sisters are proceeding cautiously. Seventy percent of the sisters are still earning. Social Security is an essential part of their income, and they have received aging religious assistance through the Catholic TriConference of religious priests, sisters and brothers, she said. “We have to be careful and make serious choices,” she said. She anticipates the sisters will still be operational two decades from now.

Belize is a concern. The U.S. congregation is the primary source of financial support for the work there. The sisters hope to “stabilize” the Delille Academy’s prospects, possibly with Belizean governmental support.

The sisters are not defensive -- they hope in Belize to create a new religious community. Their role would be supportive (as in Nigeria) with some financial assistance. They look on their century in the Central American country with a clear understanding of the strengths resulting from the religious and general education they encouraged -- one student, Sylvia Flores, former Belize City mayor, is the nation’s Speaker of the House.

In Dangriga, a two-hour drive from the capital, there is a “Little Academy” that educates young women who haven’t been able to make the grade to enter high school elsewhere, and catechetical work continues in the villages.

Belize abuts Guatemala; political stability is never guaranteed but prayed for.

For the congregation overall, Thibodeaux said she is not upset by the declining numbers. “We do what we can in the times in which we’re living,” she said.

The superior said she would “like to see us embrace the full realization of who we are as an African-American foundation. Not to live in the past but to remember it and to respond today the way our earlier women responded to their times.” She does articulate a clear vision.

“I don’t see us fully in education anymore -- we have educated and empowered women and men to carry on some of those ministries. We are in a supportive role, encouraging them to live out our charism -- they learned from us. If we can do that gracefully, withdraw and allow the lay people to take over, we would move into maybe catechetical ministries with women, children, youth who are abused -- looking at those needs which in large part are the needs of this particular section of the country.”

Is there a climate among the sisters for these changes? “I’m gradually presenting it,” she said, “as a way to ritualize the New Evangelization.”

What, NCR asked the sister who was gone for so long in a unique ministry, “do the sisters think they have in you?” Replied Thibodeaux, calmly, “I don’t think they’re quite sure.”

The Sisters of the Holy Family New Orleans
Founded: In New Orleans in 1842 by HenrietteDelille, a “free woman of color” who described her work as being “a servant of slaves.” They are seeking Henriette Delille’s canonization.
Membership: 177 sisters in the United States and Belize, including 30 Belizean sisters. The age range is 25 to 101. Seventy percent are active, the majority in education, 10 percent in social services. They are currently anticipating one new vocation each in the United States and Belize.
Membership: The sisters are in eight schools in the New Orleans archdiocese: All Saints elementary, Corpus Christi elementary, Holy Ghost elementary, House of the Holy Family, grades 1-3, St. Joan of Arc elementary, St. Mary’s Academy (on the Motherhouse campus) middle and secondary, St. Raphael the Archangel middle, and St. Raymond elementary. They staff two childhood development centers, operate three apartment buildings for the elderly and a licensed skilled nursing home across the road from the motherhouse. They are in St. Albert the Great elementary and Queen of Angels scondary schools in Los Angeles; Holy Family, Immaculate Heart of Mary and Holy Ghost elementary schools in the Lafayette diocese; Our Mother of Mercy elementary in Galveston-Houston and Holy Ghost elementary in Alexandria. Sisters provide social services in three New Orleans settings. In Belize the sisters have trained lay leadership in schools, including Delille Academy in the capital. During the past 150 years they have created almost 100 facilities, primarily schools. They have closed 53 and handed a further 13 over to lay leadership.

National Catholic Reporter, March 5, 1999