Black Catholicism Newsbriefs:

From Saint Domingue to Louisiana

The Haitian Influence on Religion

In 1847 Lanusse and his friends helped to assure the survival of a small Catholic religious order dedicated to charitable work among the city’s enslaved people and free black indigents. The congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family was founded in 1842 by Henriette Delille, yet another prominent Afro-Creole of Haitian ancestry. As Delille’s sisterhood struggled to maintain their community during the 1840s, a coalition of Afro-Creole writers, artisans, and philanthropists obtained corporate status and funding for the religious society.

When Delille took her formal religious vows in 1852, she headed Louisiana’s first Catholic religious order of black women and the nation’s second African-American community of Catholic nuns. Bearing striking testimony to the enormous impact of the Haitian diaspora, the first Catholic community of African-American nuns, the Oblate Sisters of Providence, founded in 1829 in Baltimore, originated in the Haitian refugee movement.

In 1848, Armand Lanusse and other Romantic writers took concrete measures to promote reform by establishing La Société Catholique pour l’Instruction des Orphelins dans l’Indigence (Catholic Society for the Instruction of Indigent Orphans). Through their organization, black activists executed the terms of a bequest by Madame Justine Firmin Couvent, a native of Guinea and a former slave, to establish a school in the Faubourg Marigny for the district’s destitute orphans of color. Appalled by the indigence and illiteracy of the children, Couvent donated land and several buildings for an educational facility of which Lanusse became the first principal.

While Lanusse pursued his reform agenda within the existing institutional framework, another contributor to the volume, Nelson Desbrosses, followed a nontraditional path to empowerment and change. He traveled to Haiti before the Civil War, studied with a leading practitioner of Vodou, and returned to New Orleans with a reputation as a successful healer and spirit medium. Desbrosses undoubtedly recognized Vodou’s historical significance in Haiti’s independence struggle. During the revolution, the religion served as a medium for political organization as well as an ideological force for change. On the battlefield, Vodou’s spiritual power proved decisive in reinforcing the determination of revolutionaries in their struggle for freedom. In the North Province, houngans (Vodou priests) sustained the revolt by mobilizing as many as forty thousand enslaved people.

Vodou thrived in New Orleans until the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, when President Thomas Jefferson and other political leaders sought to undermine Creole predominance by Americanizing the culture of southern Louisiana. The post-1809 influx of Haitian refugees, however, slowed the Americanization process and assured the vitality of New Orleans’ Creole culture for another twenty-five years. Immigrant believers in Vodou infused the religion’s Louisiana variant with Afro-Caribbean elements of belief and ritual.

In the relatively tolerant religious milieu of antebellum New Orleans, Haitian immigrants joined with Creole slaves, free blacks, and even whites to assure the religion’s ascendancy. Through Vodou, practiced in secrecy, Afro-Creoles preserved the memory of their African past and experienced psychological release by way of a religion that served as one of the few areas of totally autonomous black activity.

In transcending ethnic, class, and gender distinctions, Vodou helped to sustain a liberal Latin European religious ethic that recognized the spiritual equality of all persons. Vodou’s interracial appeal and egalitarian spirit, reinvigorated by Haitian immigrants, offered a dramatic alternative to the Anglo-American racial order.

Beginning in the 1860s, Vodou assemblies were systematically suppressed, but the famed “Vodou Queen” Marie Laveau continued to exert great influence over her interracial following. In 1874 some twelve thousand spectators swarmed to the shores of Lake Pontchartrain to catch a glimpse of Laveau performing her legendary rites. By that time Laveau and other Afro-Creole Vodouists had fashioned some of the nation’s most lasting folkloric traditions, as well as a religion of resistance that endures to the present moment.

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