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VALUES / Our culture, ethics, responsibilities.

Order of the Day

A tiny order of African American nuns in Compton finds itself the center of attention as the Vatican considers the group's founder for sainthood and Hollywood prepares a TV movie on her life.

August 18, 1999|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They are a tiny community, the Sisters of the Holy Family in Compton, the farthest convent from the motherhouse in New Orleans. A shy group of eight that plays dominoes and Uno after dinner. Usually, they get attention for wearing a habit: Are you a nun? strangers ask. A Catholic nun? A black Catholic nun?

Oh, yes, Sister Angela Merici Luis will say, and she will remember the days when priests gave communion to whites first, blacks last, and when African American women were shut out of most convents. Now Luis is in her 49th year with a struggling order of African American nuns that has caught the Vatican's eye--and Hollywood's attention--at the same time.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday September 20, 1999 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 8 View Desk 2 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong names--An Aug. 18 photo caption misidentified some members of the sisters of the Holy Family in Compton. The caption on the section's cover should have identified Sisters Francis Paula Guillory on the left, and Joseph Ellen Cavalier. The inside photo also showed the two sisters, Joseph Ellen Cavalier and Francis Paula Guillory.

This summer, the Vatican is expected to receive a key report on the proposed sainthood of the order's founder, Mother Henriette Delille, a descendant of slaves. Delille, who died in 1862, would become the first U.S.-born black saint if the lengthy canonization process is successful. The Vatican officially opened Delille's cause for canonization in 1989. Also this summer, to the sisters' dismay, actress Vanessa Williams is scheduled to begin production on a TV movie about Delille's life for the Lifetime cable network.

It's a pivotal time in the canonization effort for Delille, who preached to slaves and other poor people in antebellum New Orleans. In Compton, the sisters, who teach at Queen of Angels Academy, pray with the students for her cause every day during the school year in the Los Angeles Archdiocese. The sisters hand out buttons: "Henriette Delille 2000." Mostly, they fidget.

"What Henriette Delille did in her time," Luis said, "could be compared to what Mother Teresa did in hers."

Delille, a free person of color, gave up a privileged life to help blacks and orphans, along with the elderly, sick and poor. She founded the Sisters of the Holy Family in 1842, with the help of two friends at a time when most orders were not open to black women, said Sister Sylvia Thibodeaux, the order's superior general in New Orleans.

"The woman who founded our order went to the poorest of the poor, and that is the legacy she left us," Thibodeaux said. "She was the servant of slaves. You can't get more committed than that. In no way do we want her image scarred or marred."

This TV movie worries her. Thibodeaux said she had heard that the writers did only one weekend of research in New Orleans. How could they do justice to Delille's life?

"It's very wonderful that [Williams] wants to do this," Thibodeaux said, but not now, with so much at stake. In the next month or so, Father Cyprian Davis, a Benedictine monk researching the cause for the Vatican, will write a comprehensive biography on Delille and send it to Rome for review.

Campaigning

for Sainthood

In the last 10 years, the order's researchers have visited three countries and more than 30 archives. (Researchers donate their time and cover most of their own travel expenses; other expenses are paid for by donations earmarked for the canonization cause.)

The order, which also has missions in Texas, Washington, D.C., and Belize, began work on Delille's behalf in the late '60s. Much of the early work was done by Sister Audrey Marie Detiege, who kept up her research, even after she turned blind in her last years. She died in 1991 at age 66. Thirty years ago, the sisters approached the archbishop in New Orleans for support.

"Why did you all wait so long?" he asked. "Clearly this is a life that needs to be elevated to sainthood."

"The [sisters'] superior general answered by saying, 'How would anyone be interested in elevating a woman of color, a black woman, to sainthood before 1960?' " Thibodeaux said. "Nobody ever thought we would get anywhere."

Now they are getting somewhere, and who knows what a TV movie could do to the cause?

The sisters have called and written letters of protest to Williams, the movie's star and co-executive producer. They want her to delay production while the canonization process is underway.

"We feel the timing is not right," Thibodeaux said. "The [order's] definitive biography of her life is yet to be published. Our current research disputes a lot of the information that we feel may be included in their story, from what we know."

For instance, the movie's working title is "The Ballroom," referring to the parties thrown by rich white landowners before the Civil War to pick mistresses who were free women of color. Delille, who was born to a well-off family, refused to attend the balls.

"Just the name of the movie causes us to have questions," Thibodeaux said.

Williams, a black Catholic, said she immediately sent a letter to the sisters after hearing of their concerns.

"We are doing as loving a story as we possibly can," Williams said. "The last thing I would want to do is alienate the very women I'm trying to honor."

Several researchers and consultants have done extensive research to make sure that the script is historically accurate, Williams said.

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