Almost as long as there’s been a New Orleans, the Ursuline nuns have been a part of it
Nine years after New Orleans’ founding, 12 Ursuline nuns arrived in the Crescent City and proceeded to put their stamp on the fledgling city. They treated the sick and were dedicated to the education of young women, regardless of social station or race. They welcomed Acadians after the British banished them from Canada, and they treated American and British forces after the Battle of New Orleans.
The Ursuline nuns still maintain a presence in the city they have helped nurture for nearly 300 years. Most notably, they operate Ursuline Academy on an 11 1/2-acre campus in Uptown New Orleans for about 750 girls, starting with toddlers and continuing through high school. It is the oldest continuously operating school for girls and the oldest Catholic school in the United States.
- The Old Ursuline Convent at Chartres and Ursuline streets, which was completed in 1751, is recognized as the oldest building in New Orleans. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960.
- For 26 years, the nuns operated a college on their Uptown campus. Ursuline College was opened in 1927 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the first nuns’ arrival. It closed in 1953.
- The nuns moved from the French Quarter to the 9th Ward in 1824, establishing a convent on the banks of the Mississippi River. They moved Uptown in 1912 because their 9th Ward site, which the nuns had sold to the city in 1910, was to become part of the path of the Industrial Canal.
- When the nuns moved downriver in 1824, the convent became the archbishop’s residence. Since 1925, his official home has been on the campus of Notre Dame Seminary on South Carrollton Avenue.
- On the night of Jan. 7, 1815, the nuns led a service of prayer in the convent chapel for an American victory in the Battle of New Orleans the next day. During the Mass the next morning, the prioress, Mother Marie Olivier, vowed that an annual Mass of Thanksgiving would be celebrated there if the Americans won. Gen. Andrew Jackson, the commander of the victorious American forces, came to the convent to thank the nuns for their prayers. The annual prayer of thanksgiving is still held.
- The nuns were savvy businesswomen. In her histories of the nuns, Emily Clark shows how they became skilled negotiators, acquiring plantations and slaves to work on them. They also established an orphanage, and the convent became a sanctuary for widows and abused women.
The Ursuline nuns were a powerful force in the building of New Orleans and they continue in that role today. In addition to maintaining their dedication to their evangelical and educational missions, they stand as a living symbol of New Orleans’ deeply Catholic roots.