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The New Orleans Sisters of the Holy Family

African American Missionaries to the Garifuna of Belize

Edward T. Brett

Publication Year: 2012

The Sisters of the Holy Family, founded in New Orleans in 1842, were the first African American Catholics to serve as missionaries. This story of their little-known missionary efforts in Belize from 1898 to 2008 builds upon their already distinguished work, through the Archdiocese of New Orleans, of teaching slaves and free people of color, caring for orphans and the elderly, and tending to the poor and needy.

Utilizing previously unpublished archival documents along with extensive personal correspondence and interviews, Edward T. Brett has produced a fascinating account of the 110-year mission of the Sisters of the Holy Family to the Garifuna people of Belize. Brett discusses the foundation and growth of the struggling order in New Orleans up to the sisters' decision in 1898 to accept a teaching commitment in the Stann Creek District of what was then British Honduras. The early history of the British Honduras mission concentrates especially on Mother Austin Jones, the superior responsible for expanding the order's work into the mission field. In examining the Belizean mission from the eve of the Second Vatican Council through the post–Vatican II years, Brett sensitively chronicles the sisters' efforts to conform to the spirit of the council and describes the creative innovations that the Holy Family community introduced into the Belizean educational system. In the final chapter he looks at the congregation's efforts to sustain its missionary work in the face of the shortage of new religious vocations.
Brett’s study is more than just a chronicle of the Holy Family Sisters' accomplishments in Belize. He treats the issues of racism and gender discrimination that the African American congregation encountered both within the church and in society, demonstrating how the sisters survived and even thrived by learning how to skillfully negotiate with the white, dominant power structure.
"The Holy Family sisters made a large contribution to the education of women in the Belizean mission and work with the poor eventually drew the Sisters back to their original charism. In the appendices, Edward T. Brett names the women who served in the mission and their dates of service, identifies women from the Belizean mission who entered religious life, and includes tributes written by some laity regarding the sisters' mission. The book will interest students and scholars in women's studies, Afro-Caribbean history, regional history of the South, the history of missions, education, and American Catholic history." —Angelyn Dries, O.S.F., Saint Louis University

Published by: University of Notre Dame Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

Many people have generously given their time and expertise so that the story of the Sisters of the Holy Family and their 110-year mission in Belize could come to light in this book. I thank all of those listed in the bibliography whom I corresponded with or interviewed. A special thanks, however, goes to Sister Carolyn Leslie, S.S.F., the archivist for ...

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pp. 1-10

In the mid-1980s, my wife and I decided to write a book on U.S. missionaries who had been murdered in the 1970s and 1980s in Central America. Aside from a few short magazine and newspaper articles, we had never before written about modern-day missionaries, so, like any reputable historian would do, we began a search to uncover and ...

Part I: The Pre–Vatican II Period

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Chapter 1: Foundation and Growth in New Orleans

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pp. 13-25

On March 31, 1898, Mother Superior Mary Austin Jones of the Holy Family Sisters, her traveling companion Sister Mary Ann Fazende, the postulant Addie Saffold, and four soon-to-be-missionary sisters boarded a steamer, the Stillwater, at New Orleans.1 The intended destination of the seven African Americans was Stann Creek (today

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Chapter 2: Mother Austin Jones and the Early Mission

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pp. 26-39

Mother Austin was the first mother superior of the Holy Family Sisters who spoke English rather than French as her first language. She was also the first who did not descend from the Creole class of gens de couleur libre. Thus, in many respects her election marks the finalization of the congregation’s gradual transition from a Creole African...

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Chapter 3: Trouble with the Bishop

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pp. 40-50

On November 5, 1899, following the death of Bishop Di Pietro, Frederick C. Hopkins, an English Jesuit, was consecrated vicar apostolic for British Honduras, an office he would hold until April 9, 1923, when he, along with two Pallottine Sisters, drowned in a tragic boating ...

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Chapter 4: The 1920s to the Second Vatican Council

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pp. 51-62

There is little in the sisters’ archives documenting their mission in British Honduras from the 1920s through the 1950s. We know that in 1924, when Mother Mary of Sacred Heart Jourdan visited Stann Creek to survey the mission, “she had the pleasure of witnessing the results of years of toil when five stalwart young Carib men called upon her ...

Part II: The Post–Vatican II Years

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Chapter 5: Changes in the 1950s through the Early 1970s

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pp. 65-84

As with all Catholic orders and congregations, new problems would face the Holy Family Sisters in the post–Vatican II era. But before this issue is addressed, it is necessary to look at how the Second Vatican Council changed the lives of American nuns in general. Vatican II (1962–1965) profoundly affected all female religious congregations by...

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Chapter 6: Problems over Language and Inculturation

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pp. 85-107

The issue of inculturation would prove to be one of the most painful challenges that the Holy Family Congregation would face in the post–Vatican II years.1 Mistakes would be made that would threaten the harmony of the Holy Family community in Dangriga, but in the end the sisters would learn to read the signs of the times and transform ...

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Chapter 7: Mission Experiences of Three Holy Family Sisters

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pp. 108-124

In early 1980, Mother Tekakwitha Vega traveled to Dangriga to evaluate the Holy Family missionary community; and in a March 6 letter, following her return to New Orleans, she sent the sisters an assessment of what she had observed. She praised the sisters for the “conscientious performance” of their duties, their “fidelity to community ...

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Chapter 8: Withdrawal from Belize

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pp. 125-142

Due to the shortage of new vocations, by the early 1990s the number of Holy Family Sisters assigned to Belize had been reduced from five to four, yet their workload had expanded to include pastoral and youth ministry, daily ministry to the aged, and programs for nontraditional students in the CYE program. One sister still served as principal at ...

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pp. 143-155

When one reviews the history of the Holy Family Congregation from its founding in 1842 until 1897, when Bishop Di Pietro invited the sisters to send missionaries to British Honduras, one can only wonder why the vicar apostolic decided to ask this particular religious community for help and, even more so, why they agreed to his request....

Appendix A

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pp. 156-159

Appendix B

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pp. 160-162

Appendix C

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pp. 163-171


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pp. 172-205


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pp. 206-214


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pp. 215-229

E-ISBN-13: 9780268075880
E-ISBN-10: 0268075883
Print-ISBN-13: 9780268022303
Print-ISBN-10: 0268022305

Page Count: 224
Illustrations: Yes; 8-page gallery
Publication Year: 2012