In 1842, the congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family was officially established in New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1847, a group of freedmen and women formed the Society of the Holy Family to give the Sisters moral and financial support. The founding nuns took private vows on October 15, 1852, in St. Augustine Church. Father Etienne Rousselou, the congregation’s advisor, named Henriette Delille Mother Superior. She took the name Sister Mary Theresa; however, everyone called her Mother Henriette. The Sisters taught enslaved children when the education of slaves was illegal. The mission of the Sisters of the Holy Family was to bring comfort and care to children, the poor, the powerless, and the elderly. They provided shelter, education, healthcare, and bright futures to many Black orphaned boys and girls in Louisiana.
In 1853, a yellow fever epidemic struck New Orleans killing 8,000 residents. By the summer of 1878, the death toll had reached nearly 20,000. As a result, many children became homeless orphans. New Orleans was in desperate need of housing for children so, in 1892, the St. John Berchman’s Orphanage for Girls was founded by the Sisters of the Holy Family. The following year, in 1893, Thomy Lafon, a wealthy philanthropist, bequeathed a building on St. Peter Street to the Sisters for the purpose of establishing the Lafon Orphan Boys Asylum.
Born a freedman of color, Thomy Lafon was the son of a Frenchman and a free woman of Haitian descent who was born in Louisiana to a slave mother. Lafon’s father deserted the family when he was a young boy. Lafon was self-educated. In 1842, at the age of 32, he was listed in the New Orleans City Directory as a merchant. In 1868, Thomy Lafon began to build his fortune from real estate investments. In 1870, Lafon’s estimated worth was $250,000 making him at the time the wealthiest African-American in the United States. Despite his wealth, Lafon lived in a modest house and was known for his philanthropy. Thomy Lafon passed away in 1893 and is buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 3. Even after his death, his generosity continued. Lafon left the bulk of his estate, roughly $500,000, to various New Orleans charities including the Sister of the Holy Family, Charity Hospital, Lafon Old Folks’ Home, and the Touro-Shakspeare Home.
In the early morning hours of December 23, 1933, a fire broke out in the pantry of the orphanage on St. Peter Street. Clifton Parker, a 14-year-old orphan, rushed to the chapel to warn Sister Angelica of the fire. As the younger boys slept in the dormitory, the older boys were in morning prayers, and the nuns were attending chapel services. Startled by the news of a fire and realizing how quickly it could spread, Sister Angelica immediately rushed to the dormitory where the younger boys were sleeping. With the assistance of eight nuns, Sister Angelica wrapped the boys in blankets and carried them out in their nightclothes. The older boys assisted to aid a crippled friend while others helped a blind companion to safety. The quick actions of Sister Angelica and the other Sisters saved the lives of all 67 young boys. After everyone was safe, the nuns manage to retrieve candles and a chalice from the chapel. Sister Angelica retrieved the Blessed Sacrament, but all articles of clothing were left behind. The blaze spread to all three buildings. Firemen were only able to save a newly built barn and cottage. The head of the order, Mother Elizabeth, soon realized there was not enough money to rebuild the boys’ home. Various influential groups from the community came together on January 28, 1934, and agreed to appeal to the general public for aid to rebuild. Looking to move operations out of the French Quarter, Mother Austin Jones purchased 123-acres in Gentilly for $10 an acre in 1906. The Sisters decided to use the money raised from fundraisers to build the new Lafon Home for Boys in Gentilly.
The dedication of the new home was held on May 28, 1935, just sixteen months after the fire at the orphanage on St. Peter Street. The new two-story Colonial-style structure was constructed of concrete and brick and considered to be fireproof. The orphanage included four spacious classrooms, two large dormitories, a nursery, offices, and a chapel. The new home now housed 56 boys but could accommodate up to 100. Sister Angelica was put in charge. At the dedication ceremony, Archbishop Joseph Francis Rummel praised the Sisters of the Holy Family for their endless work in caring for poor orphans and the elderly. He blessed the building inside and out as thousands of Catholic worshippers, clerics, nuns, altar boys, and civic workers looked on. Reverend Murphy, president of Xavier University and pastor of St. John of Arc Church, was master of ceremony.
The Lafon Home for Boys closed in 1967 and reopened as the Lafon Child Development Center in 1969. The daycare center continued to be operated by the Sisters of the Holy Family until Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in August 2005. The Sisters returned to New Orleans after the evacuation to find the home had sustained major damage from floodwaters. The members of the Catholic order did not want to demolish the building but the condition of the structure mandates that it be removed from the land. Now only a footnote in history, the building at 7024 Chef Menteur Highway has been demolished. The Sisters of the Holy Family remain active with more than 300 members who serve the poor by operating schools for children, nursing homes, and retirement homes in New Orleans, Shreveport, Galveston, Little Rock, Washington D.C., and California.
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