Special Sisters in Antebellum South
At the close of the 19th century, a religious sister in New Orleans left to her sisters and to future generations a written history of the community to which she belonged. What is unusual is that this history was written by a black woman, a member of a community of black sisters, founded before the Civil War in New Orleans.
In 1894, Sister Mary Bernard Deggs, 47 years old, stricken with tuberculosis, spent the last years of her life recording the history of the Sisters of the Holy Family. Although French was her native tongue, she wrote in English in pencil on lined tablets. Her English was highly original. The written text is a mixture of French and English. The editors of this text, Virginia Meacham Gould and Charles E. Nolan, deserve our gratitude for the superb translation and editing of this unusual and very remarkable work.
The journal of Sister Bernard Deggs is not a conventional historical account. Rather it is a celebration of how God had worked within the lives of the first religious women of the Holy Family and how they carried out his will. This can be seen in the words Sister Bernard Deggs used to describe this work:
Just at the time that the late Civil War broke out our dear work began to sprout its timid buds and green leaves on the immense tree of charity. The time had come for us to send forth our fragrant works of charity as in a warm spring. Our Almighty and Most Merciful God, who is our omnipotent and all faithful Lord, had been waiting always for the time that our poor and innocent little Holy Family was to come forth as a beautiful and fresh rose.... Such was the fervor of our dear sisters when they were allowed to visit the sick of New Orleans and give those poor souls a word of consolation on their deathbeds.
No Cross, No Crown is a beautiful presentation of the life and activity of the first sisters, as told and retold within the framework of the first six superiors. Each chapter of the Deggs journal opens with a historical introduction and closes with excellent and helpful notes. It starts with Henriette Delille, who with Juliette Gaudin and Josephine Charles began living a form of religious life in the early 1840’s. In 1841 and 1842 they began their ministry as teachers, nurses and catechists in the parish of St. Augustine, where their cofounder, the vicar general of New Orleans, Etienne Rousselon, was pastor. The history ends abruptly with the death of Sister Bernard during the administration of Mother Austin Jones, who had been elected in 1891. Although the editors have excised much of the repetition in the original, they have retained the language that clothes Deggs’s descriptions of people and activity in her own inimitable way. Her language is colorful, pious but not sentimental, respectful of her community but always honest and frank in recounting the difficulties both within and without the community.
One is immediately struck by the author’s frequent scriptural allusions. On each page of her journal, she reveals her familiarity with the Bible. Such familiarity, so characteristic of this black sister, is no doubt a reflection of the biblical orientation of many African-American Catholics of that time. For example, When she was a young girl, Josephine’s sister...had a dancing master come to the house to teach.... Josephine preferred to go to David’s dancing master, that is to dance before the altar of Christ. In an entry that speaks of the fifth superior, Mother Cecilia Capla, she wrote, The words of gospel [sic] plainly teach us that all who love their holy state of life must also love to carry their own cross as long as life lasts.... So it is with our dear Mother Marie Cecilia, for she is a good old soldier of crosses.... She had too well learned that charity is that true key that never fails to open the gate of heaven...when all our works will speak for themselves.... She knew that her works were the bright star that would guide her to that safe port of eternal bless.
It is clear that the material has been thoroughly researched. The editors have done their best to fill in, with a certain amount of conjecture, the historical data not available for the period of the community’s founding. A case in point is the exact date. 1842 is the date that Sister Bernard Deggs records. But her words need to be nuanced. All the documentation that is available points to the fact that there was an evolution in the life of the women who went to live on Bayou Road, an evolution that took them from living as a pious union of devout lay women to recognition as a religious community by the diocesan authorities some time in 1851. Even as late as 1876, the community’s constitutions were considered to be provisional.
It should be noted that there are some errors in the editors’ transcription. In reference to the work of Louis William Dubourg, who served for a short while as bishop of Louisiana, the editors speak of him as one possibly committed to slaves and free people of color, but they fail to balance this against the fact that he encouraged the Vincentians in Missouri to purchase slaves and did not hesitate himself to use his own slaves as collateral in borrowing money. And twice they refer to black women as negresses, a term that today is objectionable to most African-Americans.
In referring to the female congregations found in Louisiana in 1825, the editors should have used the correct title of the Sisters of Loretto (not Loretta), located near Vincennes, founded by Charles Nerinckx (not Nerenckx), who, by the way, was never a bishop. In fact, the editors could have noted that in Kentucky, Charles Nerinckx founded in 1824 the first congregation of black sisters in this country. They were a separate community from the Sisters of Loretto; and unfortunately, they were disbanded after Nerinckx was forced to give up direction of the Sisters of Loretto.
Within the text of the journal itself, on page 98 the reference to the rosary should be the living rosary. Sister Bernard Deggs referred to the Oblate Sisters of Providence as the Oblates of St. Francis, a congregation of black sisters established in Baltimore in 1829, who served briefly in New Orleans in 1868, but the footnote to this reference is slightly misleading. It is not St. Francis of Assisi but St. Frances of Rome (1384-1440) who founded a community of female oblates affiliated with the Olivetan Benedictine monks in the late Middle Ages. The Oblate Sisters of Providence had St. Frances of Rome as a secondary patron and were joined to the Italian Oblates of that congregation in a union of prayers.
Finally, it should be pointed out that the definition of Limbo as a place where earthly sins are expiated and a person is purified before entering heaven and that good works and the prayers of others can shorten this purification period is incorrect. This definition is more or less accurate for purgatory. Limbo, as described in Scholastic theology, is the state for those who as infants died without baptism. Sister Deggs’s comments about Mother Austin’s reward in heaven revealed a good understanding of merit and grace. Sister Bernard Deggs’s description of Mother Austin as another Mary who presented herself to God in the temple refers not to the presentation of Jesus in the temple (Lk. 2:22-24) but to the entrance of Mary as a young girl into the temple, an incident not found in the Bible but only in the apocryphal gospels. It is commemorated liturgically in the Feast of the Presentation of Mary on Nov. 21, a very important feast still today for the Sisters of the Holy Family.
This edition of the journal of Sister Bernard Deggs is an important contribution to the history of black Catholics in the United States. For the students of American religious history and African-American history, as the editors point out, this work is unparalleled in women’s writings and is singularly important for what it tells us about the self-empowerment of society’s least empowered...women of African descent. For students of Catholic Church history in this country, it provides a backdrop for the often-ignored mentality and spirituality of black Catholics in the 19th century.
The editors are to be commended not only for their judicious effort to render this text into modern English, but the care with which they have placed this text within the greater social, economic and political society of Louisiana and the United States as a whole. Thanks to their work, we can understand better the context in which Homer Plessy was moved to fight for equal rights, in which the African-American community entered into the dark night of ever-increasing lynching and racial violence and in which brave women of color, committed by their vocation, continued to serve the poor and teach the young, bearing the cross and looking forward to a well-earned crown in the world to come.