In 1894, Sister Mary Bernard Deggs (1846-1896) was asked by her mother superior to write a history of their religious order, the Sisters of the Holy Family. The congregation, notable for being one of only two founded by African American Catholic women prior to the Civil War, had celebrated its golden anniversary just two years before.
Sister Mary Bernard was a very unlikely candidate to write such a document in English. She was a native south Louisianian, but she (like all the Sisters) was a French-speaking Creole (one of the gens de couleur libre or "free persons of color"-a light-skinned but mixed race which occupied the middle ground in New Orleans society between the whites and enslaved or freed blacks). She was unfamiliar with the conventions of written English and she was what we today call "dyslexic." What the author did have, however, was time on her hands (she was dying slowly of tuberculosis) and personal acquaintances with all the major figures in the order's history-including the foundresses Henriette Delille (1813-1862), Juliette Gaudin (1808-1876) and Josephine Charles (1812-1885). (Delille, who was the primary force among the three, is the first African American whose Cause for Canonization the Catholic Church in the United States has officially introduced.)
No Cross, No Crown is, the editors say, Sister Mary Bernard's "historical journal," but some qualification is needed. Deggs was not a trained historian and this document is not a rigorous telling of the events in the congregation's life. It is more a memoir, but uniquely not of her experiences--she says very little about herself. Instead, she organizes her account around her recollections (often scattered and repetitious ) of the lives and administrations of the six mother superiors she has known. The work's title reflects the author's belief that without suffering for the gospel in this world, there will be no reward in the next. That is a fair characterization of the theme of her story: the Sisters of the Holy Family are the faithful servants who have taken on the pain/cross that comes from loving the people of God the way God loves them.
It should be noted here that we owe a debt to the editors for supplying us with a context, which makes the book accessible and one which the author does not provide. Prior to each "Part" (one for each of the six mother superiors), we are given a chronology of the major events covered in the section--events often only lightly touched upon by Deggs--and an introductory essay, which brings in information from sources other than the journal. Without these aides, I am afraid the book would be much less interesting to students of this very important group.
And what did the Sisters of the Holy Family do? Their ministry was, in word and deed, to evangelize "their people," New Orleans (and beyond) slaves, mostly children and females, and free people of color. As time went on, this general aim was organized into specific ministries to the "sick, the infirm, and the poor"--the orphaned who needed a home, the young who needed education and training, the elderly who needed care and the dying who needed comfort.
All this was done in a time when racism was the established political, social and ecclesiastical fact of the day, a racism that got worse after the Civil War when the white establishment wanted it made perfectly clear that racial equality was never going to happen. Racism is the subtext and backdrop to the story that Deggs tells, racism against the Sisters and racism they seemed to support and participate in. This needs some illustration.
1) The Catholic Church supported the laws of the state, which prevented people of color from joining any religious institution as equals. Thus people of color were excluded. 2) Many white nuns in New Orleans were contemptuous of the Sisters of the Holy Family, regarding them as presumptuous for considering themselves a legitimate, equal-in-kind, religious order. 3) They lobbied with church officials to prevent the Sisters of the Holy Family from wearing a habit (until 1881). 4) Prejudice within the church delayed the official acceptance of a Rule (until 1887). 5) The St. Louis Cathedral priests demonstrated pettiness in restricting whites from attending the nuns' lively liturgies because those services were more inspiring. 6) While the official church did recognize and help advance their cause (especially Bishop Blanc and Father Rouselon), there were times when the nuns were left without an assigned confessor or financial help. They had to support themselves by manual labor (doing laundry), selling sewn objects, begging and donations.
At the same time, the Sisters were not without their own racial attitudes.1) The nuns were, from 1842 till long after the Civil War, all light-skinned Creoles from elite social families. Many of them did not want dark-skinned candidates. They required candidates to bring a dowry, which precluded poorer (darker-skinned, non-Creole) ladies from applying. The first split in the order (1870) came over such an issue. 2) They owned slaves. 3) They bowed to pressure from rich patrons who did not want their light-skinned children to be taught in the same classroom as dark-skinned children of dark-skinned ex-slaves.
Commendation is due to the editors of this work, Virginia Gould (faculty at Our Lady of the Holy Cross College, New Orleans) and Charles Nolan (head archivist of the Archdiocese of New Orleans). What they did here is translate a century-old manuscript from illiterate dyslexic French-English into an understandable, coherent American idiom without making it their journal. They are thoroughly familiar with both the story of the Sisters of the Holy Family and Catholic history in Louisiana. Because of their patient, erudite efforts, the story of this inspiring group of women compels our attention. Sister Mary Bernard does ramble (especially in Part III) and there is an egregious error in stating church teaching in footnote 11, p. 217 of the paperback, but other than that, I warmly recommend this work to students of American Catholic Studies.