On May 21, 1865, a girl was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico who would become one of the only black female composers of music in 19th-century New Orleans. Her name was Frances Gotay and she would leave the island at the young age of 17 to find a new home in New Orleans in 1883.
Little is known of Frances’ early life in Puerto Rico. We can assume she grew up in a Catholic family since she joined the congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family shortly after arriving in her new homeland. She entered the convent in March 1883 and three years later, on November 23, 1886, she took her final vows and became Sister Marie Seraphine.
Everyone soon became aware of Sister Seraphine’s musical abilities. With the advice of her superiors, she put all of her energies into developing her talent. A local Catholic music school (that was not ordinarily opened to people of color) recognized how talented she was and admitted her as a student. Being very versatile in the field, she learned to play practically every instrument. By the time she graduated, she had mastered the strings, reeds, brass, percussion, and harp as well as the piano and organ.
For the next 46 years, Sister Marie Seraphine composed quite a lot of music. Her manuscripts, unfortunately, were discarded or dispersed when the Sisters left their convent in the French Quarter in the 1960s and moved to Chef Menteur Highway in New Orleans East. All that remains of her work today is one published piece, La Puertorriquena: Reverie, for piano.
Sister Seraphine also used her musical talents to enhance the lives of students under her care. She was in charge of musical instruction at St. Mary’s Academy as well as music director of the Academy’s orchestra. She gave music lessons to the orphans at the Thomy Lafon Home for Boys and the St. John Berchmans’ Home for Girls, both of which were under the care of the Sisters of the Holy Family. She established a boys’ band, presided at the organ in the motherhouse, sang with the St. Louis Cathedral Choir, and even found time to teach a French class. Sister’s work seemed to never end!
For several years prior to her death, Sister Seraphine’s health had been failing, but she would not give up teaching music to her students. After the boys’ home was relocated from St. Peter Street to Gentilly Road, Sister took it upon herself to spend each weekend with them, even though the distance was further away from the inner city.
So on Saturday (September 10, 1932) she left home, arrived on Gentilly Road, gave music lessons, and practiced the boys’ band. In the evening she rehearsed the choir wherein they reviewed the hymns to be sung at Mass in the morning. She then retired for bed at the usual hour.
About three o’clock on Sunday morning, September 11, 1932 (the day before she was planning to organize a school band for St. Mary’s Academy) Sister Seraphine aroused one of the nuns and asked for assistance. She was ill and needed a doctor. The Sisters applied home remedies while waiting for a doctor and a priest to arrive. But the Boys’ Home, being so far from the city limits, neither a doctor or priest could reach there so early in the morning. Before medical or spiritual assistance arrived, Sister Marie Seraphine died. By 5:00 a.m., as the Community bell sounded for rising at the motherhouse, the message came over the wires: ” Sister Seraphine is dead.”
On Monday, September 12, 1932, a High Requiem Mass was sung in the motherhouse chapel. Following the Mass, Sister’s remains were interred in St. Louis Cemetery No. 2. Accompanying her casket was a large group of orphans from the Lafon Boys’ Home; orphaned girls from St. John Berchmans’; students of St. Mary’s Academy, and former students.
For over forty years, St. Mary’s Academy’s music department was ably directed by Sister Seraphine. After her death, the torch was passed to Sister M. Benedicta Knight. It took some time, but the school band that Sister Seraphine had planned to organize became a reality (as shown below) and is still in existence today.
St. Mary’s Academy (Band-1937)
Sources: The Louisiana Weekly, 17 September 1932, page1; Creole: The History and Legacy of Louisiana’s Free People of Color, (edited by Sybil Kein), 2000, Chapter 4 “Composers of Color of 19th Century New Orleans (by: Lester Sullivan) pages 94-95; Violets in the King’s Garden: A History of the Sisters of the Holy Family, (by: Sister Mary Frances Borgia Hart) 1976, pages 87-88.
Lolita V. Cherrie