The records of the Clerk of Civil District Court’s Office, which date back to the 1700s, represent the rich history of New Orleans and its diverse communities. Our archives can be used for property, family history, architectural, and landscaping research.
The month of December is known as the season of giving. A particular organization that embodies that spirit is the Sisters of the Holy Family, an order of African American nuns who are well-documented for their community service. The Clerk of Civil District Court’s Office would like to highlight some of our records, including notarial acts and a Plan Book Plan, that help document the history of the Sisters of the Holy Family and the charitable institutions they have created over the last two centuries, many of which are still active in New Orleans.
In addition to a brief history of the Sisters of the Holy Family, we will focus on a few of the many properties and establishments they held, specifically their convents on Bayou Road and Orleans Street, St. Mary’s Academy, the Lafon Home for Boys, and the Lafon Old Folks Home. Henriette Delille first established the group as the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1836. Born a free woman of color, Delille’s genealogy indicates that her mother, Marie Josephe Diaz, was a free Afro-Creole woman.1 According to a citation in No Cross, No Crown, Delille, with her blood sister Cecile Bonille, “preserved her grandmother’s [Hanrrietta Labeau] manumission papers in the family documents”. Their great, great grandmother, Marie Ann, referred to as Nanette, was an enslaved person. At a young age, Delille was a strong opponent of plaçage and held a deep sense of compassion for her community. Because of this, she felt called to care for the sick, elderly, and “…infants and children of slaves and free people of color as early as 1928.” She and her friends, Juliette Gaudin and Josephine Charles, who were also “femmes de couleur libre” or free women of color, are marked as witnesses in the early sacramental records of St. Louis Cathedral.2
Following their official recognition by the Catholic Church, the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary changed the name of the establishment to the Sisters of the Holy Family in 1847. Henriette Delille also incorporated “L’Association de Sainte Famille” with the State of Louisiana as a legally recognized religious organization in order to “…raise funds, own property, and avoid taxes.”3 Delille officially took her vows in 1851; Gaudin and Charles followed in 1852.
The organization moved into a small house on St. Bernard Street. The Sisters intended the house for the care of poor elderly women and purchased the property through the association. This purchase was executed through an act of sale by notary, Adolphe Mazureau, on August 2, 1848.
Convent on Bayou Road
The Sisters quickly outgrew the house on St. Bernard Street, however, due to the increasing numbers of the organization and the people they were serving. The Sisters eventually moved to a larger location on Bayou Road, while still retaining the St. Bernard Street property.
Octave De Armas, a prominent notary in New Orleans, executed acts for the Sisters of the Holy Family for over thirty years. In one such act of sale, Delille purchased lot number 2 with buildings and improvements in the Faubourg Treme, fronting on Bayou Road and bound by Rampart, St. Claude, and Ursulines Streets.
Delille purchased the property from Mr. Aristide Polenne with the financial assistance of Marie Jeanne Aliquot. Ms. Aliquot, a wealthy French woman, was a close friend and benefactor of Delille and the Sisters of the Holy Family.4 She loaned them $700 towards the $1,400 piastres needed to purchase the property as described in the act of sale. The French word piastre was often used to denote the United States dollar. Henriette Delille also used a modest inheritance left by her late mother to acquire the property.5
The act indicates that the seller, Aristide Polenne, acquired the property at a public auction from the Succession of the late Celestin Juin, a free man of color. Juin’s status is indicated in the newspaper article that was included in the act of sale before notary, Onesiphore Drouet, on July 23, 1850.
According to the act executed by Octave De Armas, Delille was firmly determined to create “à perpétuité un établissement ou asile de charité pour l’éducation religieuse selon la doctrine catholique des personnes de couleur,” or “in perpetuity an establishment or asylum of charity for the religious education according to Catholic doctrine of colored people.” The property on Bayou Road served as the convent and school.
From the listed signatures below, the reader can see that the vendor, Aristide Polenne, and vendee, Henriette Delille, signed the document. The other signatures include Jules Bermudez, who was present when Polenne acquired the property, and Marie Aliquot. [Felix] De Armas and Edgar Pitot signed as witnesses. Lastly, Octave De Armas signed the act as the notary.
Henriette Delille passed away on November 16, 1862, at age 50. Though she was grievously missed by her sisters and those whose lives she touched, the Sisters of the Holy Family continued on with Delille’s founding mission of caring for the poor, sick, orphaned, elderly, and enslaved. In 1988, the Sisters of the Holy Family sought permission from the Church to begin the process of sainthood for Henriette Delille, making her “… the first United States born African American whose cause for canonization has been officially opened by the Catholic Church.” The process is ongoing.6 On March 27th, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI declared her “venerable”. The statement in regards to her on the New Orleans Archdiocese website is as follows:
“She affirmed the God-given dignity of persons of African descent during the era of slavery. With immense love and courage, she confronted the dehumanizing conditions that the Black population, slave and free, endured.”7
After Delille’s passing, she was succeeded by co-founder, Juliette Gaudin, as the next mother superior. Josephine Charles, also co-founder, became a mother superior when she opened the “first branch house…on Chartres Street” around 1867.8
On September 2, 1876, the Sisters led by Mother Superior Josephine Charles, appeared before notary, Edward Hogan, to once again incorporate as “La Societe de la Sainte Famille.” According to the act, the Sisters declared that they neglected to comply with the laws relative to corporations and were there to reorganize and bind themselves with the stipulations within the act of incorporation.
The Societe de La Sainte Famille stated the object of the corporation was to “keep and support poor old and infirm[ed] colored women who are unable to take care of themselves.”
In the ninth article of the act, the Sisters declared that the property and effects of the former society were to be transferred to the new society, namely the property on St. Bernard Street.
Approximately four years later, the Sisters appeared before notary, Octave De Armas, to again incorporate the Society of the Holy Family. The act explains their initial charter with the State of Louisiana in 1847, followed by an “informal” act of incorporation in 1876 (see above). De Armas executed the third charter on September 20, 1880, which included more information than the previous charter. The charter mentions the Sister’s domicile as 350 Chartres Street, the aforementioned branch house. St. Mary’s Academy, a school for girls run by the Sisters, opened on this site in 1867.9
Other properties are listed as: “1. … Asylum for Colored People of old age, 2. The property on Hospital Street [now Governor Nicholls], between St. Claude [now Henriette Delille Street] and Rampart Street, 3. the present Mother-House of said society on Moreau (or Chartres Street), 4. the property situated in the square bounded by St. Bernard, Prosper, Annette, and Solitude Streets, 5. and the property known as the Convent of St. Joseph in the town of Opelousas/Parish of St. Landry.”
The survey below is of the property on St. Bernard Street.
In the image below, the Sisters give further details regarding their purpose. Article 6 states that the “objects of the Society, as foresaid, are works of religious, educational, and charitable value, such as 1. to educate young colored children, in both boarding and day schools; 2. to help and care for destitute young colored orphans; 3. to support in any ….old colored people unable to support themselves; 4. and such other good works as Divine Providence many call them to undertake.”
Convent on Orleans Street and St. Mary’s Academy
On September 14, 1881, the Society of the Holy Family, as represented by Mother Josephine Charles, purchased a portion of ground with all buildings and improvements, “excepting only the five central ‘Gas Chandeliers,’ located in the Second District fronting on Orleans Street and bounded by St. Ann, Royal, and Bourbon Streets.” The property was purchased from George Friedrichs in an act of sale executed by notary, Octave De Armas.
As indicated in the plan below, the property on Orleans Street (current municipal address 717 Orleans St.) has had a long and interesting history, with its beginnings as a ballroom. Adjacent to the Orleans Theatre, the property was the site of the Orleans Ballroom, originally designed by the renowned architect, Benjamin Henry Boneval Latrobe. It was destroyed in a fire in 1816.10 After it was rebuilt, it became well-known for events such as “…masquerade balls, carnival balls, as well as Quadroon Balls.”11
“At these balls, free women of color, whose racial make-up was one quarter African-American, attended the ball, chaperoned by their mothers, and were introduced to wealthy French suitors. Once the suitor had chosen one of the young women, if her mother approved of the arrangement, he would buy her a house and agree to support her for life. This custom was known as ‘plaçage’ and was unique to New Orleans.”12
The former ballroom was purchased for $21,000 and became the convent for the group and the school, St. Mary’s Academy, which moved from its original location on Chartres Street.
In 1890, the Mother Superior at the time, Marie Cecelia Capla, represented the Sisters in the act of sale. The Sisters agreed to purchase 3 more lots of ground in the aforementioned square, designated by letters B, C, and D in the sketch above. The act of sale was executed on June 14, 1890, by notary Meloncy Soniat.
The Sisters would buy and sell other various parts of the square. Eventually, they established the St. John Berchman’s Asylum for Girls on Orleans Street.13
The Sisters of the Holy Family sold the property nearly eighty years later in the 1960s, and the property was developed into the Bourbon Orleans Hotel.
The following year, 1891, Mary Austin Jones was elected Mother Superior. She had been the principal of St. Mary’s Academy prior to taking the position of Mother Superior at age thirty.14
Lafon Home for Boys
On March 21, 1893, the Sisters of the Holy Family, represented by Mother Mary Austin, purchased one lot of ground in a square bounded by St. Peter, Claiborne, Derbigny, and Carondelet Walk. The sale was made in cash for $3,750 as a gift from Mr. Thomy Lafon.
Thomy Lafon, who was present during the act of sale, was a free man of color who “…amassed great wealth in real estate and become one of America’s first African American philanthropists, donating to numerous charitable causes.”15
The act states that the Sisters of the Holy Family accepted the gift from Mr. Lafon under the condition that the property would be purchased as “an Asylum for destitute orphan Boys bearing his name to wit: ‘Lafon’s Asylum for destitute orphan Boys…'”
In the image below, the signatures of Mother Mary Austin and Thomy Lafon, appear at the end of the act, in addition to the signatures of the witnesses, and Antoine Doriocourt, as the notary.
Known as the Lafon Home for Boys, the property on St. Peter Street remained in use from 1893 until 1906 when the home relocated near Gentilly Road.16
Lafon Old Folks Home
That same day, on March 21, 1893, Lafon declared before notary, Antoine Doriocourt, that he transferred the rights of another property to the Sisters of the Holy Family. The property was designated as Lot 6 in Square 315 of the Second District as shown in the Plan Book Plan below.
The Plan Book Plan was created on March 3, 1883 by architect, John Frederick Braun. In the image below, there are still hints of what the structure looked like nearly 140 years ago with the chimney, iron work, shutters, and Greek key surround.
Thomy Lafon further explained in the act of declaration that he had purchased the aforementioned property from the State of Louisiana in 1891, but that it had “always” been in the possession of the Sisters of the Holy Family.
Lafon was an instrumental figure to the organization, providing property and monetary donations to the many institutions run by the Sisters of the Holy Family in pursuit of aiding those in need. Lafon passed away in December 1893. The Sisters’ appreciation and endearment of Lafon was evident by their reference to him as their “dear old papa.”17
According to Odyssey House Louisiana, the current owners of the property, the Sisters of the Holy Family had maintained the residence since 1866.18
Known as the Lafon Old Folks Home and the Lafon Asylum of the Holy Family, the property on Tonti Street originally opened as a nursing home for men but by 1895 received both men and women.19
The Sisters of the Holy Family continued their care for the elderly until 1973 when they sold the property and moved the Lafon Nursing Facility to its current location on Chef Menteur Highway.
In 1973, Odyssey House Louisiana was established as a substance abuse treatment center, which is still in service today.20 It is interesting to note that this property has approximately a 150 year history of providing charitable services to Louisiana citizens.
In 1906, Mother Mary Austin Jones appeared before notary, J. Henry Forcelle, to purchase a large tract of land, having “7 arpents front on the left side of Gentilly Road, by a depth of 21 arpents and 46 feet on the side line nearest the city, and 21 arpents and 175 feet on the other line.”
At a Board of Directors meeting, The Society of the Holy Family agreed to purchase the property for $8,000. The board approved Mother Mary Austin, also the president of the society, to make the purchase. The meeting notes shown below reference the 1880 act of incorporation before notary, Octave De Armas.
According to the Sisters of the Holy Family’s website, the purchase of the property in Gentilly “…formed the cornerstone for the ministries at St. Mary’s Academy, St. Paul the Apostle Church and School, the House of the Holy Family, Delille Inn, Lafon Day Care Center, Lafon Nursing Facility of the Holy Family, and the present Motherhouse.”21
The properties established on the tract of land can be located on Google Maps.
The aforementioned properties are a mere sampling of locations once and currently owned by the Sisters of the Holy Family. Through the numerous property transactions housed in the Land Records Division of the Clerk’s Office, it is evident that the Sisters of the Holy Family have had a long and meaningful impact on New Orleans, particularly in the African American community.
The Clerk’s Office has a rich amount of history pertaining to the Sisters of Holy Family. If there are any particular interests that you would like to learn more about, please contact the Clerk’s Office. We are happy to assist.
- https://64parishes.org/entry/henriette-delille by Virginia Meacham Gould
- No Cross, No Crown by Sister Mary Bernard Deggs, edited by Virginia Meacham Gould and Charles E. Nolan p. 10 [https://www.jstor.org/stable/25154602]
- No Cross, No Crown by Sister Mary Bernard Deggs, edited by Virginia Meacham Gould and Charles E. Nolan p. 204n15 [https://www.jstor.org/stable/25154602]
- No Cross, No Crown by Sister Mary Bernard Deggs, edited by Virginia Meacham Gould and Charles E. Nolan p. 205n25 [https://www.jstor.org/stable/25154602]
- No Cross, No Crown by Sister Mary Bernard Deggs, edited by Virginia Meacham Gould and Charles E. Nolan p. 25 [https://www.jstor.org/stable/25154602]
- No Cross, No Crown by Sister Mary Bernard Deggs, edited by Virginia Meacham Gould and Charles E. Nolan p. 182 [https://www.jstor.org/stable/25154602]
- No Cross, No Crown by Sister Mary Bernard Deggs, edited by Virginia Meacham Gould and Charles E. Nolan p. 185 [https://www.jstor.org/stable/25154602]