The Old Ursuline Convent is the oldest building in the Mississippi Valley and the only building of the original colony still standing. Authorized by King Louis XV of France in 1745, it was originally built for the Sisters of Ursula, who had settled in New Orleans in 1727. The Ursuline nuns conducted a school to educate the daughters of wealthy Creoles. One notable alumna was the Baroness de Pontalba. The nuns also educated Indian and African-American girls in special classes. In that era, a nun, Sister Francis Xavier, became the first woman pharmacist in the New World.
The original building was riddled with problems caused by the climate, soil, and weather conditions. The present building was completed around 1752. Here, the legend of the city's patroness, Our Lady of Prompt Succor, was born. In 1788, a great fire swept away the hundreds of homes and also threatened the convent. Sister St. Anthony, one of the old nuns, climbed the convent stairs carrying the small statue of Our Lady. As the Superior watched, Sr. St. Anthony set the statue on the sill facing the fire, then knelt and prayed with great confidence. At that very instant the wind veered and the flames were blown back.
The night before the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, nuns and relatives of the men fighting with Andrew Jackson’s forces spent the night in prayer before the statue of Our Lady of Prompt Succor. Miraculously, the badly outmanned and underequipped Americans defeated the British. In keeping with a vow made that day, a Mass is celebrated every January 8th in thanksgiving. The miraculous statue is presently at home in the National Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, at the Ursulines latest home.
Through the years, the building has served as an orphanage, a makeshift hospital during yellow fever epidemics, the Archbishop's residence, a boy's school, the seat of the Louisiana Legislature, and a residence hall for local bishops. It was also the residence of the Oblate Fathers, who served the Italian community. The adjoining St. Mary’s Church dates from 1845. The church and convent are part of the Archbishop Antoine Blanc Memorial. The church is a non-parochial House of Worship, and is maintained as a sacred historical edifice, affording limited religious services for neighbors and visitors.
Some Other Features:
The convent still maintains a beautiful formal garden and behind the main building, there is a peaceful walled courtyard. In the main building is the original hand-crafted cypress staircase that Sister St. Anthony climbed so many years ago. The main lodge is filled with dozens of oil paintings of past religious, statues and bronze busts. Smaller rooms recall the building’s many functions over the years. The buildings were restored and repaired in the 1970's.
The Convent is located at 1100 Chartres Street in the French Quarter. Call (504)569-1401 or 800-535-7786 for tour information. From January 29 through June 1, 2007, "An Exhibition Of The Vatican Mosaic Studio" is at home in the convent, featuring mosaic reproductions of artists such as Van Gogh, Renoir, and Rembrandt, created by the Vatican mosacists.