As seen in this photograph by the renowned New Orleans photographer Arthur P. Bedou, Sisters of the Holy Family gather in a classroom for the religious order’s annual portrait. At one time, the streets, buses, streetcars and parochial schools of New Orleans were aflutter with various orders of nuns, but the Sisters of the Holy Family was unique for it was the only order of nuns founded by African Americans in New Orleans for young Black women. It is a compelling story that began two decades before the Civil War.
Unlike most Southern cities at the time, New Orleans was predominantly Catholic with a large, vibrant, cultured and educated community of free people of color. Realizing the city had a great need for religious training among free Black people and the enslaved, New Orleanians Henriette DeLille, Juliette Gaudin and Josephine Charles formed the Congregation of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which later became the Sisters of the Holy Family. Over the last 180 years, the order has served the poor, indigent and the sick. It has established nursing homes, such as the Lafon Nursing Facility, and schools including St. Mary’s Academy. Eventually, the order opened convents in other states and several foreign countries. Based in the French Quarter for over a century, the order moved to its current location on Gentilly Blvd. in the mid 1960s. A movement is now underway to have Henriette DeLille canonized a saint in the Catholic Church.
Also of historical interest is the photographer Arthur Paul Bedou. Born in Tremé, Bedou was a descendant of French-speaking Creoles and a prominent photographer who built a national reputation for his work. In addition to documenting family and social life in the city’s African-American communities, Bedou was Booker T. Washington’s personal photographer. Other notables he captured on film included, among many others, George Washington Carver and Theodore Roosevelt. He also served as the official photographer for Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans and Tuskegee Institute as well as several national medical, business, social and religious organizations. During a long career that began in 1899 and ended with his death in 1966, Bedou received numerous honors, including a gold medal at the 1907 Jamestown Tricentennial Exposition.
This photograph of the “Sisters of the Holy Family” along with others by Bedou, and over 150 images by other Black photographers nationwide, are included in the current exhibition “Called to the Camera: Black American Studio Photographers” on view at the New Orleans Museum of Art until Jan. 8.
As to Bedou, an exhibit label states – “In many New Orleans families, the surname ‘Bedou’ remains interchangeable with the word ‘photographer.’”