The first Ursuline Convent ranks with the Cathedral and the Old Saint Louis Cemetery among the most interesting landmarks of New Orleans.
The devouring tooth of time has eaten into the blue gray stucco which once covered its massive walls, but not a vestige of its old aspect has departed, and although battered and decayed, the old convent is still one of the largest and strongest buildings of the "Old Carre."
It is even more than an old mansion; it is a relic of the past, a household of souvenirs, a living witness of the wonderful story of the Ursulines that reads like a romance in our day.
Let the visitor stop at the porch and recall the seemingly endless journey of the pious voyagers from Hennebon; then religious awe and deeper respect will escort him throughout, where lived and died those whose purity of life has been equaled only by the firmness and devotion they showed in upholding this higher standard of womanhood of which the daughters of Louisiana give so noble a living example.
Just a few years after having transferred the Capitol of Louisiana from Mobile to New Orleans, Governor Bienville thought to secure some teachers to educate the girls of the colony. A boys' school had been already opened by a Capuchin monk, Father Cécil, who taught his pupils in a house adjacent to his monastery, near the parish church.
At first Bienville turned to his native country, Canada, to enroll some "Sœurs Grises" (The Nine Sisters), but his project proved impracticable.
He then consulted Father Beaubois, Superior of the Jesuits, who offered to apply to the Ursulines of Rouen. After much deliberation a treaty was concluded, September 13, 1726, by which these pious ladies engaged to supply teachers and nurses for New Orleans.
A lady bearing the somewhat singular name of Tranchepain, was appointed superioress. She was a convert from Calvinism, and had taken the veil among the Ursulines in 1699. All the nuns chosen for the Louisiana mission assembled in the monastery of Hennebon, in Brittany, to acknowledge as their superioress Marie Tranchepain of Saint Augustine, January 1, 1727. On the 27th of January, 1727, the nuns looked their last on Paris, whence they journeyed to Lorient, delayed by execrable roads and bad weather, but bright and cheerful under all contrarieties. On February 22 they bade adieu to their country "for the glory of God and the salvation of poor savages." They sailed on the "Giroude" with the Jesuit Fathers Tartarin and Doutreleau and "Frère Crucy," who, with Madeleine Hachard, a novice, being the youngest of the party, considered it their duty to amuse the rest."
The voyage had its chroniclers, and every incident is vividly described in the letters and diaries of Mother Tranchepain and Sister Hachard, These nuns wrote with ease and elegance, and one cannot read their narratives without interest. It would take too long to give details of this seven months' journey from Paris to New Orleans over the stormy Atlantic, among the West Indian Isles, on the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, and up the Mississippi. Besides, no words can describe, in these days of rapid travel with Pullman boudoirs and ocean palaces, the sufferings of those "who went down to the sea in ships," a hundred and eighty-one years ago. Now they were threatened with a watery grave, again with starvation and thirst; once the ship barely escaped hostile corsairs; later they encountered savages of so peculiarly ferocious a type that they murdered by slow tortures all the whites whom they captured and made every victim drink his own blood.
The scenery and the trials of the last days of this journey were a befitting climax to the voyage. Probably no scene on earth was so bleak and dreary as was the entrance from the Gulf to the Mississippi, nearly two hundred years ago. An interminable waste of waters, a vast morass impassable for man or beast, shoals and bars, low strips of coast covered with poplars, prairies of reeds, a wilderness of cane brakes, the mouths of the river strewn with drift wood and half choked with wrecks - these greeted the voyagers.
As they ascended the river, forests that seemed co-eval with the creation itself opened before their eyes; here and there were seen a solitary hut for pilots, stretches of green savanna, gaunt trunks of trees stuck fast in the sand, gigantic cypress shrouded in funeral moss, half submerged in the yellow waves. Gloom and magnificence everywhere mingled; fishes disporting themselves ruffled the old gold surface of the melancholic river; blue cranes, like flying skeletons, hovered about the little flotilla; swarthy, half nude natives in pirogues and chaloupes glided among the wondrous waves, shimmering in the mystic charm of the summer sunlight. "Neverless, the trials and fatigues of our five months' voyage," writes Sister Hachard, " are not to be compared with what we had to endure in our fifteen days' journey from the Gulf to New Orleans, a distance of thirty leagues." On August 7th, 1727, the nuns reached the city of which our chronicler gives the rather flattering description: "It is very handsome, well built and regularly laid out. The streets are wide and straight; the houses wainscoted and latticed, the roofs supported by whitewashed pillars and covered with shingles, that is, thin boards cut to resemble slates, and imitating them to perfection. The colonists sing that their town is as beautiful as Paris. But I find a difference. The songs may persuade those who have never seen the capital of France. But I have seen it, and they fail to persuade me." To tell the truth, the country, save for a small space around the church, was thickly wooded to the water's edge, and the trees were of prodigious height. The squares and streets laid out by engineer La Tour were still mostly on paper.
Since the hurricane of 1723 (8?) had swept away the cabins of the first settlers, it is true, colonists were slowly rebuilding the town on a scale of comfort and splendor which surprised and delighted the nuns. A crayon sketch carefully preserved in the present convent, gives a lively representation of the "Landing of the Ursulines." The nuns are in procession, wearing the ample garb of their Order. Sister Hachard's fine, strong lineaments are partially concealed by the flowing white veil of a novice. Father Beaubois presents them to the Capuchins of the parish church, and points out the Indians and negroes, their future charges. A negress holding a solemn ebony baby, regards the group with awe and wonderment. A beautiful squaw, decked with beads and shells, surrounded by plump papooses, half reclining with natural grace on a log, and a very large Congo negro has stopped his work and betaken himself to the top of a wood pile to gaze leisurely on the scene. Claude Massy, an Ursuline postulant, carries a cat which she tenderly caresses, and another, "Sister Anne," is searching a basket for something; both wear the high peaked Normandy cap. Franciscans heavily bearded, and Jesuits in large cloaks, appear in the distance. Immense trees, which have long since disappeared, overshadow the whole group. The picture is a most interesting and valuable relic, probably the only one in existence which shows all together the first schoolmasters and schoolmistresses of New Orleans and of Louisiana.
Governor Périer, his wife and all the people welcomed the nuns as risen from the dead, for they had been given up as lost.
LANDING OF THE URSULINESThe picture entitled "Landing of the Ursuline Nuns," deserves more than a passing notice. It is the most historic picture in Louisiana, being the only glimpse taken of New Orleans in that early period. It is a reproduction of a sketch made by Madeleine Hauchard, a young Ursuline novice, at the moment of the landing of the community on Louisiana soil. From the day of the departure of the Sisterhood from France, Madeleine Hauchard, who was far ahead of her day and generation, began to keep a diary of the order. As the nuns landed in New Orleans, and were met by Bienville and the other Government officials, and clergy, Madeleine Hauchard paused and rapidly sketched the group, for as she afterward told her superioress, "The landing was historical". This original sketch, faithfully preserved by the Ursulines, and still to be seen in the old Convent, was subsequently enlarged by Madeleine Hauchard, and hangs in the Convent parlors within the strict enclosure. On completing the picture, she placed herself among the Sisterhood; she may be easily recognized by the tall, white novice's cap that she wears, and the cat that she bears in her arms. She brought this pet cat all the way from her old home. The picture has never been seen outside of the Convent walls, and it is now given to the public for the first time by The Picayune, through the courtesy of the Ursuline Nuns. Madeleine Hauchard, it may be added, took the black veil of the Ursulines and for nearly forty years, up to the time of her death, devoted herself to the work of religion, education and charity in Louisiana. For upwards of thirty-eight years she kept the daily record of all the events that happened in the colony, and this diary, still faithfully preserved in the old Convent, is the only record extant of those early days. Madeleine Hauchard was of a bright, vivacious, generous nature; it is recorded in the order that she was the life and heart of the community from the time that it set sail on the unknown seas in 1727 to her death. Her cheery, sunny temperament is revealed in every page of her diary, and one may imagine what a tower of strength such a sweet, sturdy, optimistic character must have been to that brave band of pioneer women-workers in Louisiana.
Mother St. Augustin Tranchepain (ca 1680-1733: Missionary to the Colonies) was among the Ursulines who landed in New Orleans in 1727, inspiring this late nineteenth century painting, Landing of the Ursulines, by Paul Poincy; reproduction of a sketch made by Ursuline novice Madeleine Hauchard
The Picayune's guide to New Orleans (1904)
As the building intended for them was not completed, Bienville's country house, the best in the colony, was offered to them provisionally. It a two-story edifice with a flat roof used as a belvidere or gallery, situated on Bienville street, between Royal and Chartres streets. Six doors gave ingress and egress to the apartments on the ground floor. Large and numerous windows, with sashes covered with fine linen, let in as much light as glass. From the roof the nuns might gaze on a scene of weird and solemn splendor. Swamps and clumps of palmetto and tangled vines; the surrounding wilderness with groups of spreading live oaks (chenieres) cut up by glassy bayous, was the home of reptiles, wild beasts, vultures, herons and many wondrous specimens of the fauna of Louisiana.
The Sisters at once began to teach the children and extend their cares to the sick, the Indians and the colored folk. Sister Hachard praises the docility of the children, "who can be molded as one pleases." She says that it is easy to instruct the negroes once they have learnt French, but "impossible to baptize the Indians without trembling, on account of their natural propensity to evil, particularly the squaws, who, under an air of modesty, hide the passions of beasts."
The hospital of the Sisters usually had from thirty to forty patients, mostly soldiers. Everything was so well arranged that the officials said it was useless for them to continue their visits, as there was nothing for them to do. At first the infirmarian nun watched the nurses, but ere long she took sole charge. The sick could not say enough in praise of their "mothers," who would gratify their tastes when it could be done without prejudice to their health. "We bless God for the success of this Christian work," writes Sister Hachard. "The spirit of our holy institute shows itself in the good our Sisters do for souls while attending to the wants of the body."
The community which thus auspiciously began the work of education in Louisiana consisted of eight professed members, one novice and two candidates. Bienville's country house, which had been turned into a convent, soon became too small for the number of ever increasing pupils. Unfortunately the convent, which was in course of construction at the other extremity of the town, did not show any encouraging signs of progress. The Indian Company had promised to have it ready in six months, but the construction dragged along considerably and the six months lengthened out to seven years. The gentlemen who had begun this work with a relative diligence, had grown weary, and neither tears nor solicitations could prevail on them to supply the material and finish the work.
Tradition asserts that the nuns quitted Bienville's villa to live for a time on the plantation they had received from the Indian Company for their support. Nun street, a short street flanked with cotton presses and opening on the levees, is commonly designed as the site of this country house, and Religious street, Notre Dame street, Annunciation street and Teresa street seemed to have formed a kind of network over what is supposed to have been the Ursuline plantation.
At last the convent, promised by the Indian Company and under construction since seven years, was completed. The nuns, who had been at a time disheartened by so long an expectance, again became hopeful and made their removal to the new monastery the occasion of one of the most elegant pageants ever seen in this city. On Saturday, the 13th of July, 1734, just as the nuns resolved to postpone their, departure indefinitely on account of a rain which had lasted three days, the sun bursted out suddenly from the cloudy heavens, and in his brilliant light and tropical heat the waters soon subsided. The nuns took the sudden clearing of the sky as a good omen, and at 5 p. m. all their bells rang out to announce their intended departure. Bienville, whose third term (1733-1743) had recently begun, soon appeared in the convent chapel, where the nuns knelt for the last time. Fathers Beaubois and Petit, and Brother Parisel, Jesuits; Fathers Philip and Pierre, Capuchins, and the most distinguished people of the place surrounded the brilliantly lighted altar, and the troops, half French and half Swiss, drew up on either side of the old Bienville mansion, which had served as a convent for the past seven years. This venerable house, that saw the beginning of the Ursulines in Louisiana, and in which died the brave and gentle superioress. Mother Augustine Tranchepain, on November 11, 1733, was destroyed in the dreadful conflagration of Good Friday, 1788.
After the benediction, given by Father Philip, assisted by Fathers Beaubois and Petit, all left the chapel in procession, the citizens opening the march. Then came the children of the orphanage and the day school pupils, followed by forty of the principal ladies of the city, bearing torches; next twenty young girls, robed and veiled in the purest white, and twelve others, representing-Saint Ursula and her 11,000 companions. The boarders, orphans and day pupils carried wax tapers. The young lady who personated Saint Ursula wore a costly robe and a regal mantle of tissue of silver. Her crown glittered with pearls and diamonds, and a veil of the richest lace fell about her in graceful folds. She bore in her hand a heart pierced with arrows, made with wondrous skill. Fair children arrayed as angels surrounded her, and all waved palm branches, emblematic of the glorious victory won by the heroic virgin martyrs, whom they had the honor to represent.
At the end of the procession came the nuns with lighted candles, and the clergy carrying a rich canopy, under which the Most Blessed Sacrament was borne in triumph. Bienville and his staff, the Intendant of the province, Mr. Salmon, and the whole population formed their escort. The soldiers moved in single file on either side, about four feet from the procession. Hymns were sung by all, the accompaniment of fifes and drums making pleasing harmony; Brother Parisel, in surplice, acted as master of ceremonies, and perfect order and decorum gave to the display the last touch that crowns a thorough success.
This moving panorama of light, color and beauty halted between the Saint Louis Parish Church and the "Place d'Armes," and defiled gracefully down the aisles of the church, the troops kneeling and presenting arms to do honor to the Blessed Sacrament. The nuns knelt within the sanctuary, and Father Philip placed the "Veiled Saviour" on the altar, while soldiers, robed as acolytes, were swinging censers, from which arose delicate perfumes. The congregation remained prostrate till Father Petit, the orator of the occasion, ascended the pulpit. In a sermon, described as most eloquent by the nun whose facile pen has embalmed these precious details, he set forth the necessity and advantages of giving young persons a solid Christian education. In glowing words he congratulated the nuns on their labor to this great end, so conducive to the glory of God and the welfare of the colony. At the close of this touching address, the soldiers sang hymns, and Father Philip gave the Benediction.
When the procession wound out of the church, the torches and tapers were not superfluous; the sun was setting, but the afterglow remained for a while, burnishing- the lofty trees and turning the mighty river into colors of molten gold. All drew up before the "Place d'Armes" and the bells of the new monastery rang out their merriest peals as the procession moved slowly in the deepening twilight.
"Thus did we enter our new abode," writes Madeline Hachard, "amid the chiming of bells, the music of fifes and drums, and the singing of praise and thanksgiving to our Heavenly Father, whose loving Providence has lavished on us so many favors."
And now let our imagination follow the nuns in their convent. Those who know the old monastery, our present Archbishopric, will be interested to know that the ground floor had a small chapel, two parlors, a room for the Mother Superioress, refectories for the Sisters and the boarders, community rooms, kitchen, scullery and pantry. On the next floor were the dormitories, infirmary, sacristy, linen room, wardrobe. The orphans occupied part of the upper story; the rest was used as an instruction room for colored women. At the same time the Indian Company erected a separate building for the sick, to which the patients were removed on the 20th of August, 1734. This addition was behind the convent, and faced Arsenal street, which changed its name to Hospital street. This convent sheltered the Ursulines for ninety years. In 1821, the nuns built a spacious monastery, three miles below the city. To this they removed, without ceremony of any kind, during the vacation of 1821. At first three nuns and a novice took up their abode in it on July 26th. Two weeks later several other Sisters and the boarders followed the superioress and others remained in the city till the closing' of the day-school in September.
The early dwellers in the new home had many privations to endure; having no cooking apparatus, their meals were sent from the old house. Once their caterer did not come till evening, nor was his arrival a source of comfort, as he presented only empty dishes, his cart having upset on the way. Even at this time, depredations by Indians in the suburbs of the city were not unknown, and the nuns were so much afraid that they could not sleep. Finally, one of the bravest. Sister Marie Olivier, offered to keep watch while the others slept. But neither Indians nor other robbers made their appearance in her hours of patrol.
The old convent in Chartres street, which was abandoned by the Ursulines, saw various uses. In 1831 the Louisiana State House having been destroyed by fire, the Legislature rented the ancient edifice from the nuns, and held several sessions within its walls. Shortly after the lease expired the Ursulines presented it to the Archbishop of New Orleans as a place of residence.
It was so used until 1899, when a number of the Catholic clergy and laity purchased the old Slocomb residence in Esplanade avenue, and presented it to the late Archbishop Chapelle as a residence for the Archbishops of New Orleans. The historic old site in Chartres street is still known, however, as "the Archbishopric," and is used for the transaction of all the official business of the Archdiocese.
Though several times repaired, the venerable building has lost nothing of its antique aspect; all of its interesting features have been carefully preserved, and nothing of them has been sacrificed to the restless taste for modern comfort. Entering through the porter's lodge, in the door of which is the usual convent grating or "guichet," as it is called, a small garden is reached, and a good view is had of the venerable building, which was planned after the Tuscan composite style. Crossing the garden, the visitor enters by an old-fashioned porch a large vestibule, from which diverge several passages leading to the courtyard, the adjacent Saint Mary's Church, and to various parts of the building. The interior remains almost in its original state, with a curious old staircase, heavy doors, and cypress floors, the latter so worn that the ill-fashioned, old handmade nails protrude. The walls are several feet thick, and the beams and rafters, which the saw never touched, seem as strong as when they left the forest. In the dining room, which has natural panels of natural cypress, are several paintings, mostly pictures of the late prelates of the diocese.
On the second floor are the offices of the Archbishop, the library, the guest-rooms and the apartments of the Chancellor and other attendants of the Archiepiscopal household. The interior gallery opens on a square of green lawn, at the end of which has been erected a shrine to the Virgin. On the third floor of the building may still be seen the quaint little cells of the nuns, and the old-fashioned desk of the community room, at which the superioress sat and presided, when the nuns met for instruction and prayer. The entire building is covered with a heavy peaked roof.
Just at the corner of Hospital and Chartres streets, where a grocery now stands, was the ancient burial ground of the convent. When in 1824 the nuns removed to their new quarters, near the Barracks, the remains of the deceased members were disinterred and reburied in the cemetery attached to the present convent. But the bodies of the colored servants, who were interred in front of the convent, were never disturbed.
Saint Mary's Church, which flanks the old monastery on its left, has been built in the early part of the last century, as an adjunct to the Archbishopric. The church is in charge of the Chancellor, who acts as rector.
And now, kind reader, that you have followed the gentle nuns from the country home of Bienville to their convent on Chartres street, and from Chartres street to their present location, at the lower end of the city; now that you have gone through the old monastery, noticing the ravages of time and changes made by men, let us pass through it a last time with the interest which arises from the knowledge of the past. Imagination Will people these old walls in a moment.
There is the upper story, once used as an instruction room for the colored. Dusky girls and women came thither in crowds for instruction, advice and consolation. Thither, too, came the Indian women, with a world of sorrow in their large, dark eyes. Let us descend and look through the various apartments which were once occupied by the nuns and their pupils. We gaze on the clumsy gate with its small "grille" and quaint iron knocker, and think of those who passed through these faded portals. The early Capuchins and Jesuits, old "Father" Bienville, the honest Périer and his pious wife, and the first Ursulines of Louisiana. See how they crowd up from the past, not shadowy creatures from the twilight regions of romance, but beings, real and human, and working with heart and soul for future generations.
The "Grand Marquis" De Vaudreuil in gilted casque and heron plume, the pensive "Filles à la cassette," the weeping Acadians, the chivalrous descendants of MacCarthy More, the scholarly Ulloa, the princely O'Reilly, the dashing Galvez, the lordly O'Farrell, the intellectual Bishop Penalver, the future King of France, Prince Louis Philippe, and his two brothers; Andrew Jackson, lean and haggard from midnight vigils, but illumined and glorified by his eagle eye; how they all come to memory in this hallowed spot, so full of religious and historic associations. What a sacred threshold indeed this is! Humble missionaries, chivalrous knights, stately dames crossed it daily. It saw painted and feathered Indians, stern squaws, negroes from the kraals of Africa, all came hither to be consoled or learn the secrets of a better land from those who had renounced the pleasures of the world for their sake.
The nuns have gone long since, never to return again; long since the young daughters of Creole lineage have ceased to fill these walls with life and merriment; on the nearby "Place d' Armes" the white banner of France was succeeded by the broad standard of Spain, which, in turn, was furled to give place to the glorious stars and stripes of young America. Still stands the old Ursuline Convent, by far the oldest building in New Orleans and all Louisiana, as well as the most venerably historic.
It was truly the cradle of religion and education in Louisiana. May these walls, which enclose so many souvenirs of our past, and whose perennial existence seems to defy the destructive hand of time, be preserved and remain a monument of Catholic work as long as the sun throws over them the magic splendor of its rays.In and Around the old St. Louis Cathedral of New Orleans, by Rev. C. (Celestin) M.Chambon, Philippe's Printery, Exchange Place, New Orleans, 1908
THE ANCIENT ARCHBISHOPRIC
The Oldest Building in Louisiana
Adjoining the Archbishopric is St. Mary's Church. It was the ancient Ursuline Chapel, and is the oldest church in Louisiana. This historic edifice stands in the center of the square between Hospital and Ursulines Streets. Entrance may be had through a quaintly constructed portal, defended by double gates, piercing the wall in the middle, of the Chartres Street front. The porter's lodge is within this portal. The buildings face a spacious lawn. They were erected between 1727 and 1734 for the use of the Ursuline nuns. The nuns resided here from 1734 to 1824. when they removed to their present domicile, in the extreme lower part of the city. The old building has seen various uses, not the least interesting of which is that in 1831 it was the State Capitol, and the Legislature held its sessions within its walls. The building was at that time leased by the State of Louisiana from the Ursuline nuns. Shortly afterward, the lease having expired, the Ursulines presented it to the then reigning Archbishop of New Orleans as a place of residence for the archbishops of the diocese. It was so used until 1899, when a new residence for the archbishops was purchased in Esplanade Avenue. The historic old site in Chartres Street, however, is still retained as the "Archbishopric", and is used for the transaction of all the official business of the archdiocese. The Archbishop and the Chancellor have their offices here, and it is the official place designated for all important ecclesiastical meetings. No one should leave New Orleans without visiting this ancient building. It remains exactly as when first erected. The visitor should remark the ancient staircase, the steps of which are single, massive pieces of timber, deeply worn by the feet of many generations. The chapel contains a little oratory and shrine. The reception room, on the lower floor, is beautifully paneled in cypress, and contains a curious old clock. The shutters of cypress over the main entrance are over 100 years old and are still perfectly sound. In the dining-room hang portraits of all the Bishops and Archbishops who have presided over the See of New Orleans. On the third floor of the building may still be seen the quaint little cells used by the Ursuline nuns in 1734, the old-fashioned desk in the community room, at which the superioress sat and presided when the nuns were assembled for meditation and prayer. In another room are the quaint, heavy benches on which the slaves sat as they were gathered together morning and evening for instruction and prayer. In the building are preserved all the most ancient archives which are a part of the history of Louisiana from the beginning. A beautiful old garden is in the rear of the convent.
The Picayune's guide to New Orleans (1904)
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