visits the remains of the French Quarter house where Mother Henriette Delille lived as a child in New Orleans.
...Thibodeaux joined Delille's Sisters of the Holy Family some 50 years ago and headed the congregation from 1998 to 2006.She
credited the nuns with her
early education, her
father's schooling and the evangelization of many of Louisiana's black Catholic families.
As superior of the congregation in August 2005, Thibodeaux
had to evacuate her
nuns -- more than half of them elderly -- from New Orleans.Praying that she
might summon the courage of Delille, she
found herself, cell phone in hand, threatening to call a lawyer when the driver hired by the sisters tried to offload them at the Superdome rather than take them to a place of safety in Shreveport.Thibodeaux
, a tall, bespectacled woman with a low, commanding voice, prevailed.The nuns arrived in Shreveport 14 hours later, a journey that usually took under four hours.It was months before any of them could move back to New Orleans.
Two years later, the city still struggles to stand erect.Only 60 percent of its citizens have returned, largely because Katrina devastated New Orleans' infrastructure.A lack of affordable housing is the main reason so many have stayed away, Thibodeaux
rode through the Ninth Ward and other parts of the Crescent City where the sisters have lived and ministered for 165 years.
...At age 71, when most nuns retire or at least contemplate it, Thibodeaux has been asked to direct the archdiocese's Department of Religious, where she serves as liaison between Archbishop Alfred Hughes and the 730 religious order priests, brothers and nuns residing in the archdiocese.
A typical day for Thibodeaux
involves meeting with small congregations "that are on the edge of existence.I try to keep them hopeful, but they're losing members and a way of living they've known all their adult life," she
In the wake of what Thibodeaux called "the worst natural disaster in U.S. history," she
has had to face the reality that "congregations are dying."For her
own Holy Family sisters, whose average member is in her
mid-70s, the end could arrive as early as 2014, when it is estimated there will be no more active sisters.
Despite the paucity of new vocations and the aging and dying of members in all orders, Thibodeaux
is not wringing her
hands in despair."Katrina has forced us to think about refounding, reconfiguration and reorganizing how we live as religious."Merging with another group might be possible, though she
acknowledged the challenge involved, given the culture and history of her
congregation."We have so much to offer, so much to share that I think it's worth exploring."Thibodeaux
took hope too from having seen new groups begin.In 1973 the bishop of Benin, Nigeria, asked her
to cofound an order of indigenous sisters whose families had been enemies in the Biafran civil war.She
has had time to reflect on the life cycle of religious institutes after spending almost two decades in Africa, much of it in formation work with the Sisters of the Sacred Heart
of Jesus -- who today number some 100 teachers, nurses, lawyers and administrators.
The nun who answered the door made Thibodeaux
drop the medal into the white sister's palm so "she
would not have to touch my hand."As a child of 7, "I may not have understood the gesture fully, but it stayed with me."
Once when she
family in Breaux Bridge, La., as a young novice and took one of her
siblings to Mass at the white church, her
father received a call informing him: "Your children were at church this morning."He
knew what the call meant, she
Today indifference has replaced bolder forms of racism, she
said."I see it most in the services the church no longer makes available to black people," chiefly in education.
The consortiums of Catholic schools, begun in Louisiana since the 1960s, are being abandoned, she
said."Yet education has got to be for the long haul.Otherwise we're all going to pay for the 'mis-education' of black youth," Thibodeaux
warned."We'll pay in crime, unemployment, drugs, a poor workforce and medical problems.She
thought the decline in vocations has gone "hand in hand" with cuts in Catholic education for blacks and the poor."Our sisters, whatever mistakes they made, were, and still are, the face of the church."Although she
admires "the dedicated people running our schools ... money shouldn't be the criteria for everything, neither should be religion."Thibodeaux
hopes that Archbishop Hughes' recent pastoral on racial harmony would help all New Orleans Catholics understand that everyone deserves a decent place to live, three meals a day and good schooling.Hughes has initiated a pastoral plan of action designed to address and extinguish racial disharmony in New Orleans.His
pastoral speaks of the heroism of the city's own Henriette Delille
, in whom personal faith and social concern converged.In June Hughes hopes to hand Pope Benedict XVI the positio detailing Delille's life, work and virtues, a major step toward her
Yes, Delille is a challenging role model, Thibodeaux
said as she
walked the lobby and outdoor terrace of the Bourbon Orleans Hotel, where once cotillion balls were held, where Delille instructed slaves and Thibodeaux
trained as a nun.
"The church proceeds so cautiously," she
mused.Too often it "accommodates" rather than leads."We're afraid to lose the contributions of the rich.Yet Mother Delille did things that were so radical in her
did it very covertly, quietly," said Thibodeaux
."I don't know if I have the same kind of courage."
Those who witnessed Thibodeaux's transformative work during the civil rights era and in Nigeria and those who got safely out of New Orleans under her
guidance recalled that the prayer of Delille was never far from her
recited it as she
tussled with the driver at the Superdome, and daily in the weeks after the storm upended the lives of all in the city:
As someone who has known what it felt like to sit in the back of the bus, to not be able to eat in restaurants, stay in hotels or attend colleges -- even 100 years after Delille's death -- Thibodeaux
smiled broadly when asked if any good came out of Katrina's fury.
The storm revealed "our common humanity, our compassion and generosity," she