On a bright and lively Friday, I headed down to Nine Roses for lunch in Exchange Alley to catch up with my MidCity pal and meet her visiting NY friends. After a delicious Vietnamese lunch (I recommend the Cheagan = Cheating Vegan Pho and the coffee Bubble Tea), we then took a mosey around the Quarter. We ended up doing an activity that I have never done over my 35 + years here: going into the Old Ursuline Convent Museum which, as anyone knows who spends more than a day here, is the oldest existing building in the city and actually predates any in the entire Mississippi Valley. 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.” The Ursuline Nuns staffed the first hospital in the vast Louisiana Territory that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, and from the Appalachians to the Rocky Mountains. In this same facility were established the first convent in what is now the territory of the United States, the first day nursery, the first orphanage, and the first institution of Catholic charities.
The docents are dedicated, full of fascinating details and should be commended for their pleasant natures, considering how many times a day they say the same thing.
You enter into the tiny gift shop where you buy tickets and hear about Our Lady of Prompt Succor, patroness of New Orleans, who every good New Orleanian knows, protects us from bad winds of hurricanes and more.
After purchasing tickets (thanks to our generous visitors) you are free to head into the courtyard, then into the main building. The docent there directs you to the tour of the church to your left, which was built in the 1840s on the site of the original Ursuline chapel as the Archbishops Chapel. That turn of events was possible because of the 1820s move of the Ursulines up to what is now known as Jefferson Avenue where they remain today (whenever I hear someone talking about that, I hear The Jefferson’s television show theme “Movin On Up”). A lovely church, only open for special events and musical concerts such as during the French Quarter Fest. Of course, we all notice the statue of the saint with a skull in her hand and ask the docent about it who is used to the question: it is Saint Rosalia of Palermo, made for St. Mary’s during the time when it served as the Italian community’s church. The story below taken from Wikipedia was told to us in almost exactly the same words by the docent, EXCEPT for the last sentence:
Rosalia was born of a Norman noble family that claimed descent from Charlemagne. Devoutly religious, she retired to live as a hermit in a cave on Mount Pellegrino, where she died alone in 1166. Tradition says that she was led to the cave by two angels. On the cave wall she wrote “I, Rosalia, daughter of Sinibald, Lord of Roses, and Quisquina, have taken the resolution to live in this cave for the love of my Lord, Jesus Christ.” The feast of Saint Rosalia is on September 4th. In 1624, a plague beset Palermo. During this hardship Saint Rosalia appeared first to a sick woman, then to a hunter, to whom she indicated where her remains were to be found. She ordered him to bring her bones to Palermo and have them carried in procession through the city.
The hunter climbed the mountain and found her bones in the cave as described. He did what she had asked in the apparition. After her remains were carried around the city three times, the plague ceased. After this Saint Rosalia was venerated as the patron saint of Palermo, and a sanctuary was built in the cave where her remains were discovered.
We see the National St. Lazarus order shrine in the hallway and the docent tells us a great “only in New Orleans” story: the building had termites and needed money to treat. The society of St. Lazarus was given this hallway in 1980 to build a permanent shrine in return for their financial assistance and in regard for their respected order which is over a thousand years old; you may know it as the Knights Templar, or as the Knights of the Crusades. The docent tells us that the order gathers at the shrine every October.
The next area of the museum takes you through the history of the order in New Orleans, which is worth spending some time reading, including Thomas Jefferson’s agreement as to the order’s rights to be held separate from civil authority. His letter was written as a response to their request for autonomy at the time of the American takeover of New Orleans during the Louisiana Purchase:
To the Soeur Therese de St. Xavier farjon Superior, and the Nuns of the order of St. Ursula at New Orleans
I have recieved, holy sisters, the letter you have written me wherein you express anxiety for the property vested in your institution by the former governments of Louisiana. the principles of the constitution and government of the United states are a sure guarantee to you that it will be preserved to you sacred and inviolate, and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to it’s own voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority. whatever diversity of shade may appear in the religious opinions of our fellow citizens, the charitable objects of your institution cannot be indifferent to any; and it’s furtherance of the wholesome purposes of society, by training up it’s younger members in the way they should go, cannot fail to ensure it the patronage of the government it is under. be assured it will meet all the protection which my office can give it.
I salute you, holy sisters, with friendship & respect.
After that room, take a minute to view the graceful clock in the hall, still with its the original clock face that was brought with the nuns when they first arrived in New Orleans in the 1720s. That clock later survived the Galveston hurricane which killed those nuns who had left the New Orleans area to set up an order there. The clock was returned to New Orleans and still strikes every 15 minutes (or so).
Then, check out some history of Catholic New Orleans in the other rooms, and finally take some time in the orderly back garden. The temporary exhibit there now is of six people who spent time here who are either saints or on their way to sainthood (“Ordinary People, Extraordinary Gifts: The Road To Sainthood”). The statues are very pleasing and are set at human height to allow for close inspection. (After reading a bit online about Cornelia Peacock Connelly, I can see why she deserved to be venerated by the church!)
The last welcome sight was of the rubber tree that I had grown to enjoy for many years as a passerby, and used to hang heavily over the convent wall. After a hard freeze a few years back (an unlikely occurrence in the city but it does happen) the rubber tree had disappeared from view. I had hoped that it had not been taken out entirely and had kept my eye out for its return on top of that wall for some years- how cheery to note from an inside vantage point that it is just about ready to be seen by the outside world again.