A note before reading
We offer reflection questions as an accompaniment to an individual or collective reading of this material. You are encouraged to use these questions to deepen your reading and prayer and to help direct your individual or collective reflection.
Born about 1810 in Kentucky, Eliza (/Liza) Nesbit (/Nobbet(t), Nabitt, Nibbet, Nebbet(t), Nebbit(t)) was presented as a gift* to Rose Philippine Duchesne from Bishop Dubourg around 1822. (At the end of her life, she says she was 12 years old at the time, but others say she was seven. One 1822 document gives her age as 15. Ages in this documentation are always approximate.)
Eliza said that she was “given*” to Philippine, and oral tradition sometimes referred to her as an orphan. Legal documents indicate, however, that she was not an orphan, but rather, the daughter of an enslaved couple, Henry (/Harry) Nebit/Nobit and Jenny Burch, also held by the Bishop. The sale record of October 7, 1822 for the Nebit family from a Mr. Macfuer to Bishop Dubourg names them as follows: “a Negro named Henry [Harry], aged about 46 years, together with his wife, [Jenny] his children namely Charles, age 21 years, Mary age 20 years, Eliza age 15 years, Clément age 14 years, Dory age 13 years, Sarah Ann age 11 years, William age 9 years, Peter age 8 years, Andrew age 6 years, Elizabeth age 2 years, and John age 6 months.” Soon after this, Eliza was given* by the Bishop to the RSCJ. [i] The names of her parents and siblings would later appear on a document in 1827 transferring property (including enslaved people) from Bishop Dubourg to Bishop Rosati.
In notarized documents dated 1822 and 1827, Eliza is listed as being 15 years old (quinze), but this may be one of multiple errors in this document. Elizabeth and John, who are also listed on the 1822 document, had not yet been born as of the date of the 1822 sale. A baptismal record gives births of two of the children of Harry and Jenny at St. Mary’s of the Barrens: Elizabeth born July 12, baptized September 2, 1827; and John Mary born January 10, baptized February 5, 1829.
Sarah Ann Nesbit was sold* in 1836 to Father Charles de la Croix living in St. James Parish. Here she likely had contact with her sister Eliza. In a bank application in New Orleans in 1872, Sarah indicated her parents were Henry Nebit/Nobit and Jenny Burch and that she had a sister Eliza living in St. James Parish where Convent was, as well as two brothers, John and William.
Eliza probably accompanied Eugenie Audé and companions to found St. Michael’s in what became known as Convent, Louisiana in 1825. She would go on to spend the rest of her life there. According to her own account, she bonded with the Society, and her dream was to become a member. However, due to the structures of racism constraining the Society, she was never permitted to join. Nevertheless, Eliza considered herself a member of the Society from her early teens. Aloysia Hardey, RSCJ, with whom Eliza later formed a close friendship, lived at St. Michael’s during her early formation and first vows. This may have been an influence on Eliza’s desire to become a member of the Society. In later years, she said that when she expressed her disappointment at being excluded, Philippine told her that she would be a religious in heaven.
At one time, Philippine had, in fact, proposed allowing Black women to enter a segregated third order, but when she proposed this to Bishop Dubourg and Madeleine Sophie Barat, it was rejected, on the basis that it would represent too great a violation of American social norms for the school families to tolerate. “Don’t make the foolish mistake of mixing the whites with the blacks,” wrote Madeleine Sophie. “You will have no more pupils. The same for you: no one would come if you accepted novices from among the blacks. Later we will see what we can do for them. The essential is that in the beginning you are able to command confidence and thus attract both vocations and pupils” (Sophie to Philippine, November 5, 1818. Letter 107 in De Charry collection). In later years at St. Michael’s, promising young Black women who expressed a vocation were encouraged and assisted to enter the Sisters of the Holy Family, an all-Black community whose foundress, Venerable Henriette Delille, was possibly trained at St. Michael’s.
Stories about Eliza in biographies of superiors of the era indicate that she may have absorbed some of the anti-Blackness of her environment. Accounts claim that she had trouble connecting with other Black people, and that she claimed to be Indigenous rather than Black, with dark skin as a result of the Louisiana sun. These stories notwithstanding, it is clear from the accounts of her death that she was a respected member of the Black community in Convent, mentioning visits from the Sisters of the Holy Family, and recounting the grief of the local Black community at her passing.
Barred from her dream of joining the Society, Eliza married at least twice. Her first husband was Dick (last name unknown). Their first child appears to be Susanna (also called Sooky), born in 1829. This would place this first marriage around 1828, when Eliza was probably in her late teens. St. Michael’s Parish records list four of the couple’s children: Marie Charity in 1833, twins Vincent and François in 1839, and Aloysia in 1840. In the 1860 slave schedule for St. Michael’s, the oldest enslaved woman listed is age 48. This is, undoubtedly, Eliza Nesbit. In the 1870 census, she has five children living with her: two with her surname, Sarah age 10 and Josephine age 15; and three others with the surname Antoinette: Mary, age 15; Philomine, age 14; and Alfred, age 9. The census lists them as a separate family living in the same house as Eliza. Alfred is still with her in the 1880 census, listed as her nephew, but this time with the surname Effer. Neither girl listed with him in 1870 appears in the 1880 census record, but it is possible, if they are Alfred’s siblings, that they are Eliza’s nieces. All four girls are listed on the census document as being enrolled in school. This is, perhaps, St. Joseph’s School for Black students in Convent founded by the Society in 1867. In the 1880 census, Eliza lists herself as Lizzy, a widow with the surname Walker. In an 1888 document, she describes herself again as married. Society records mention that one of these marriages was unhappy and the spouse disappeared with her property.
Given Eliza’s widely recognized devotion to religion, it is highly unlikely that she would have married outside of the Church or had children who were not baptized. Nonetheless, none of her marriages appear in church records, which are sparse for the dates covered. No baptism record has been found for either Josephine or Sarah, who could possibly be her children.
In the financial records of St. Michael’s in 1848, there is a list of all those enslaved at the convent, mentioned by name. Eliza Nesbit is listed as “acquired" in 1828 along with her children, who are here named as Sooky, François, Frank, and Elizabeth. The date, names, and circumstances listed here are probably in error, given their discontinuity with other official records and with what she says of herself in several other sources.
Eliza’s strong personality comes out in three extant letters dictated by her, and in stories about her in the Society Annual Letters. She did not hesitate to express her advice to both local and general superiors and complained that local superiors were transferred too often. She had clear convictions about what was appropriate and what was not, refusing to attend Mass when she was unable to wear shoes despite the assurance of the priest that it was all right. God was present in her cabin, she asserted in one of her letters, and she could pray there just as well.
The Annual Letters mention her three times. The first mention was in 1872, at the time of a visit from Reverend Mother Hardey, whom Eliza considered to be her spiritual mother. She declared that Mother Hardey’s short visit could not end until she (Eliza) had the opportunity to open her soul to her. The second mention appears in 1888, when she was noted for her strong religious devotion and total dedication to charitable works. The third was the three-page account of her death on June 22, 1889 and the funeral the next day. This account of her death recounts that Eliza was determined to be buried with the RSCJ even if she could not join them in life. This request was granted when it went all the way to Paris. At the end of her life, she dedicated herself by an annual vow of Charity as a Sister of Charity of the Sacred Heart, renewed each Pentecost Sunday. The public ceremony, with the vow to serve the sick and needy, was in front of the assembled community and concluded with the singing of the Magnificat. Since Eliza could not read, she made sure the superior read the vows properly and insisted they practice if she felt the superior’s English was not good enough. She is described as very particular about the dignity of her clothing, and had a new dress and headdress for the occasion. It is possible that the extant photo of Eliza is of her in this special vow day attire.
When Eliza died in 1889, she was mourned by her community, both within the Society and among the Black population of Convent. The account of her last hours and her burial merited a rare long account in the Annual Letters of that year. Knowing that she was dying, she had only one answer to the question about what she wanted: “I only want the grace of God!” Each day before offering Mass at the convent, the chaplain visited her in her cabin where she lay dying and renewed his blessing. The superior, Reverend Mother Coralie Caisso, visited her often, as did the Sisters of the Holy Family. Soon after her death, the community and the Children of Mary gathered to pray at her bedside. She had prepared the white dress for her burial many years before. The funeral was celebrated with as much solemnity as possible, and the procession to the cemetery brought out the whole religious community, her family, and the Black community of Convent. At the motherhouse in Paris, a novena of Masses was celebrated for her. These accounts reveal that all considered her holy and held her in great reverence.
Eliza was buried in the convent cemetery at St. Michael’s alongside the many RSCJ who were buried there, and her remains were moved with them in 1951 when the property was sold, to a common crypt at St. Mary’s Chapel up the road in Union, Louisiana.
It appears that Eliza did have descendants through the children of John Trim and his wife Hannah Brady, although the line of descent has not been documented fully. So far, no marriage records for any of her children have been found.
When St. Michael’s school closed in 1925, the property remained in Society possession for over 25 years more. The caretakers of the school were a couple: Achille Mitchel and his wife Georgina Trim, born in 1885. Georgina wrote a letter to an RSCJ in 1967 stating that Eliza was her great grandmother through her father John Trim. The 1880 census lists John Trim, born in 1852, newly married to Hannah Brady and living in Convent near other formerly enslaved persons connected to the school. Hannah was the daughter of John Brady and his wife Augustine (surname unknown). So far, no record has been found with the names of John Trim’s parents; however, nearby was another Black family with the name Trim, that of August Trim and Agnes Yates. They are of the right age to be the parents of John, and between their eldest child, August born in 1844, and the next child Rafael born in 1856, there is room for another son of John’s age. If John is a grandson of Eliza, it must be through one of Eliza’s older daughters, either Sooky/Susanna or Mary Charity. His death record has not been found, nor is there any mention of him after the 1900 census, where he is listed as living in St. James parish and his marital status as divorced.
Written by Maureen Chicoine, RSCJ and Lyn Osiek, RSCJ
[i] Legal Documents, 1816-1854 [folder 1 of 5], AF/2011/9358 [AR/01329], ANOA; Property Records, Book Q, pp. 189-192, St. Louis City Recorder of Deeds, St. Louis, Missouri.
*We have opted to tell the truth about human chattel slavery clearly, here, by retaining the dehumanizing transactional language of the historical documents. However, we have chosen to call the reader’s attention to these terms with an asterisk. We hope the reader will trip over these terms while reading, and feel the discomfort of using them. Our intention is to make it clear that, although our historical documents may describe a person as being “gifted,” “loaned,” “bought,” or “sold,” we cannot unquestioningly accept such language today, because we cannot morally accept the premise of ownership and domination on which that language is based.