New Orleans’ French Quarter should actually be called The Spanish Quarter. New Orleans was destroyed by a Good Friday fire in 1788. By then this city was part of the Spanish Empire. Spain got it in 1762 as the result of a secret provision in a treaty with the French following the Seven Years’ War. Another secret treaty gave the city back to France in 1800. By the 1850s New Orleans was the third-largest city in the United States. By the Civil War, it had changed hands 6 times and had a growing reputation as a party town that always had something to celebrate. Even funerals were festive. The fire only spared the Ursuline Convent at 1100 Chartres Street because, it was said, Sister Felicité put a religious statue in a window. This convent is now the only genuinely French building in the French Quarter
In 1727, nine years after New Orleans was founded, a bunch of Ursuline nuns arrive from France with the intent to educate fine ladies. Their trip took 5 months. It took 5 weeks for them just to get from the mouth of the Mississippi to the city. In 1752 they moved into their new convent. Built by French military engineers who used 250 year old cypress trees for beams, it withstood the fire and today is the oldest building in the Mississippi Valley. Inside is the oldest freestanding staircase in the United States. The convent morphed into an orphanage. The nuns’ mission expanded to care for the city’s poor and educate children of all classes, including slaves.
In 1815 another miracle occurred. During the Battle Of New Orleans between locals and the British, the nuns prayed to Our Lady of Prompt Succor and the Americans were victorious. They sustained 13 deaths while the British suffered 291. Not surprisingly, the building became a hospital.
The nuns moved in 1824 and the building was used as the archbishop’s residence with administrative offices. The New Orleans’ Italian community was growing, so St. Mary’s Italian Church was built on the property in 1845. It remains a beautifully ornate church that is visited on a convent tour, the only way to see it when Ruth and I were there. Many of the convent rooms are now a museum thoroughly examined during the tour (504 529 3040 provides some details). The statue above depicting St. Anne, Mary’s mother, is in the church. Shadows make Anne seem a bit sinister.