Heart of Louisiana: The Ursuline Convent

Heart of Louisiana: Ursuline Convent
Published: Feb. 1, 2018 at 8:37 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 1, 2018 at 9:51 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - If you like to see old, historic buildings, the oldest one in Louisiana is located in the French Quarter in New Orleans. It was built in the mid-1700s as a home for French Ursuline nuns.

As New Orleans celebrates its 300th anniversary this year, Dave McNamara takes us inside the Old Ursuline Convent in the Heart of Louisiana.

The wooden steps show the wear of nearly three centuries.

"These are the ones on this side that really have a nice dip in them and they're very worn," said Emilie Lumas.

The stairs takes you up and down three floors of the old convent, the oldest building not only in New Orleans, but the entire Mississippi River Valley. The old convent building dates to 1750. That's about 25 years before the United States became a country. But it replaced an original structure that was built 15 years earlier.

The stairs are all that remain of the original structure. The building is a museum that tells the story of the first 12 Ursuline nuns who came to the tiny village of New Orleans in 1727. Their journey from France took five months. This arrival scene was drawn by one of those first nuns.

"They ran into pirates, they ran aground," Lumas said. "They get to the mouth of the Mississippi River. They have to transfer to other small boats. Take five days coming up wherever, sleeping on sandbars."

They came here to educate women and run a hospital for the young French colony, and they insisted on a convent.

"The sisters are smart enough that they tell Bienville and the crown, 'we're not going to take care of the rural hospital until you build us a convent.' And so they hold out for seven years until they get their convent," Lumas said.

This is the statue of Our Lady of Victories, also known in French as Notre Dame de Victoire, and it came with the sisters in 1727. That original group of nuns.

Those nuns also brought this still-working clock.

"When the convent in Galveston was built, the sisters gave the clock as a house-warming for the convent in Galveston

The clock somehow survived the great Galveston Hurricane of 1900.

"That clock actually got washed out to sea and came back," Lumas said. "It fell and it broke - the glass broke, and we've left the crack in the glass to commemorate and to memorialize those that died during that hurricane."

The convent has weathered its own hurricanes. It survived the great fire that destroyed most of the French Quarter in the late 1700s and was a gathering place during the battle of New Orleans.

"And the women and the children throughout the city also come into the convent and come into the chapel to have an all-night vigil," Lumas said.

The convent has grown over the years. There is a point above the chapel in the attic where you can see brick walls from three centuries - 1700 to 1900. The structure is a reminder of the role of those first brave Ursuline nuns in the beginnings of a new city nearly 300 years ago.

Throughout 2018, the Ursuline Convent Museum has a special exhibit featuring 300 years of Catholicism in New Orleans.

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