Monday, August 07, 2023

The Old Ursuline Convent in the French Quarter of New Orleans

The stained glass window above the entrance
During my trip last month to Louisiana, I had the pleasure of spending a good part of a day walking around the French Quarter of New Orleans in the company of David Liberto, a long-time Thomist professor at Notre Dame Seminary, and a man who knows the city like the back of his hand.
One of our stops was the Old Ursuline Convent, the oldest building in the Mississippi Valley. (In what follows, I will be freely drawing upon descriptions offered here, at the official website. All photos are my own except where noted.) As an American, accustomed to a national history that sometimes seems thimble-deep compared to Europe’s, it does one good to visit a building from the mid-eighteenth century, built by Frenchmen on what would later be our country’s soil. The connection to the old world is palpable.

“Constructed by French Colonial Engineers under the auspices of the crown, the convent was designed in 1745 and completed in 1752-1753. Over the centuries, this building has been a convent for the Ursuline nuns, a school, an archbishop’s residence, the archdiocesan central office, a meeting place for the Louisiana Legislature. Later, it served as a residence for priests serving mainly the Italian community and then housed the Archdiocesan Archives. Today, together with the St. Louis Cathedral and St. Mary’s Church, it forms the Catholic Cultural Heritage Center of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.”

Here are two overhead photos from the museum’s website.
According to the National Parks Service, “This is the finest surviving example of French Colonial public architecture in the country, Louis XV in style, formal and symmetrical, with restrained ornament. It was constructed between 1748 and 1752 for nuns whose mission was to nurse the poor and teach young girls.” (October 9, 1960, designation of the convent as a National Historic Landmark)
The above staircase was part of the original 1734 convent that was built elsewhere. When the new convent (this building we are looking at) was erected, the stairway was reinstalled there. It is the only original, open, winding staircase remaining in an American colonial building, and the hand-forged railing is the only original ironwork left from French Colonial Louisiana.

Across from the bottom of the stairs is a very fine painting of St. Joan of Arc, the painter of which I failed to note:
When the building was repurposed as a bishop’s residence, a large chapel was added to it:

Note the French inscription to Our Lady of Victories
The stained glass windows also use French for inscriptions:
In the chapel is held a 1515 edition of the Nuremberg Bible:
New Orleans was home to the 8th National Eucharistic Congress, held from October 17-20, 1938. The altar in this chapel is adorned with the logo:

Thanks to the assiduous efforts of British Pathé, we can enjoy a 30-second clip about this Congress:

The convent museum contained a lot of intriguing items. This statue of Our Lady of Victories came to New Orleans on ship in 1727 with the original group of Ursuline nuns, making it one of the oldest Marian statues in the southern States:
An 18th-century chasuble sewn by the Ursuline nuns.

Silver candlesticks used by the nuns.
As is typical of so many museums, sadly there was a room full of reliquaries in glass cases, which probably have not been properly venerated for a very long time. I hope I’m mistaken and a diocesan priest is assigned to come and get them for special feastdays!

A piece of St Therese of Lisieux’s funeral garment
There was also an exhibit about the construction of the Cathedral of St. Louis nearby (which I will talk about in a post at NLM on August 21st, closer to the feast of that cathedral’s patronal saint.)
Ciborium and communion plate
“Geometric plans”
Correspondence (in French, of course) on letterhead, dated 1880

Pope Pius IX’s brief elevating New Orleans to the status of an archdiocese

Some issues of the cathedral’s monthly newsletter
The most radical Enlightenment figure among the Founding Fathers of the USA, the deist, anti-Platonist, proto-historical-critical social contract theorist Thomas Jefferson, wrote a very beautiful letter to the Ursuline nuns that raised my estimation of him a notch or two.

All in all, a most enjoyable visit. If you are ever in New Orleans, don’t miss it.

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