When Ursuline Academy interim president Glenn Gennaro walks out of his second-floor office in the main academy building on State Street, he tries to remain extremely attentive.
“This is a huge place,” Gennaro said, referring to Ursuline’s 11-acre campus that is dotted with grand stone buildings with interconnected walkways and a surprise seemingly behind every twist and turn. “When I come out of my office, if I turn the wrong way, I have to walk four blocks.”
Gennaro is only slightly exaggerating, but not by much. When the Ursuline sisters moved their educational operations about 100 years ago from the Holy Cross neighborhood below the French Quarter to State Street uptown, they brought with them an educational legacy almost as old as New Orleans itself.
They built big on a big piece of property because their legacy of education and service was even bigger. The history of New Orleans would not be complete without their history.
Twelve Ursuline nuns arrived in New Orleans in 1727 and within months established the nation’s oldest and continuously operating Catholic school in the United States. Artist Paul Poincy’s iconic 1892 portrait of the 12 sisters’ 1727 arrival shows them disembarking, but the portrait errs because the sisters actually arrived in two shifts, one day apart.
No matter. A sense of history is never lost at Ursuline. When Hurricane Katrina heavily flooded the school’s Sacred Heart courtyard, a new tree was planted to commemorate each of the 12 pioneering sisters.
Always there to serve
Only two years after the Ursulines arrived in New Orleans, they ministered to the numerous French children who had been orphaned in a massacre by the Natchez Indians. They built their first convent in the French Quarter in 1734, but that building had to be replaced by a “new” structure – the Old Ursuline Convent on Chartres Street – less than 20 years later. That building remains the oldest building in the Mississippi Valley.
The sisters withstood the great New Orleans fires of 1788 and 1794.
When Spain transferred New Orleans to the United States in 1803, the French nuns feared the predominantly Protestant American government might look antagonistically at their educational and health care ventures. But President Thomas Jefferson wrote a famous letter of reassurance: “The property vested in your institution by the former government of Louisiana … will be preserved to you, sacred and inviolate.”
In 1815 they kept an all-night prayer vigil for Gen. Andrew Jackson and his overmatched American troops in the Battle of New Orleans. When Jackson defeated the imposing British army with his rag-tag band of soldiers, he personally thanked them for their prayers to Our Lady of Prompt Succor.
They are so old they loaned the Jesuits the money to build their first school in New Orleans in 1847. They pre-date the Jesuits and the Holy Cross Fathers in New Orleans.
“One of the Ursuline sisters told me she doesn’t think the Jesuits ever paid them back!” Gennaro said, laughing. “Can you imagine if they had been collecting 100 years of interest? Sister told me, ‘It was probably a no-interest loan.’”
The Ursulines also taught the daughters of slaves.
“And when some of the parents complained, the sisters told them, ‘Don’t send your girls here,’” Gennaro said.
Built to last
A 1921 panoramic photograph of the early stages of the State Street campus shows a school, convent and priests’ house – all massive in scale – and the cement foundation for what would become the National Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor.
So when Gennaro talks about Ursuline’s history and tradition, he is speaking about a well that runs deep.
“The great part about Ursuline – service – has not changed,” Gennaro said. “One of the things that makes Ursuline different is that we were committed to service long before service became cool in schools. No matter when you talk to an Ursuline girl, when she graduates she will talk about ‘serviam’ (I will serve) and the need to give back, the need to be available.
“The other thing that you hear from alumnae is ‘cor unum’ (one heart). No matter where you came from or what was going on at the school – because, like any other school, it’s had its ups and downs – you were here for one heart. You work for the school and put aside those things.”
While Katrina heavily damaged the campus, Gennaro has seen many positive developments that emerged from the wreckage. The century-old campus received more than $10 million in FEMA reimbursements to help fund critical infrastructure improvements at the school, including new slate roofs, new floors, updated electrical systems and new plumbing. The academy also raised nearly $6 million from donors for new campus additions, including a new fitness and wellness center, with an indoor track, classrooms, dance and aerobic areas, and a softball field that are scheduled to be finished in March and dedicated in September.
Gennaro cited Gretchen Kane, Ursuline’s previous president, for helping the school navigate through the challenges of post-Katrina reconstruction.
“Gretchen did a magnificent job rebuilding this campus,” Gennaro said. “It was her foresight and dedication, because it could have gone the other way. The school did have insurance but it had very little endowment. The insurance would never have paid for everything that needed to be done. That fund-raising is continuing.”
As Gennaro walks around the campus, he points proudly to a spectacular early childhood center – the nuns’ former laundry that was built in 1912 – that has been masterfully retrofitted into a kid-friendly facility for learning. The outside of the building looks the same, but the inside includes areas for reading, drawing, climbing and taking naps.
“The babies love it because it’s so child-friendly,” Gennaro said. “It’s such an easy progression because as they grow up they move through the campus. So, they’re used to going to Mass at the shrine, they’re used to doing the blessing of the animals on the feast of St. Francis. So, they’re used to growing up here. And then, of course, they want to come back and be married here, and we have people buried here.”
A separate, two-story stone building is the sisters’ burial chapel, the second floor of which is now used as an elementary school music room.
Mystery and surprises
Here are some other quirks about the campus buildings:
– The windows in the former nuns’ refectory can open to create a breeze, but there is an angled pane of frosted glass at the bottom to keep the nuns from being seen from the outside. “You could open the windows, but you couldn’t see the sisters,” Gennaro said.
– The priests’ residence was built at a time when the Ursulines were cloistered, and priests were nearby to celebrate Mass.
– The sisters’ stalls in the cloistered wing of the shrine chapel have seats that can be adjusted to face in each direction: one way for Mass and the other way for community meetings. Think of the seats on a streetcar.
– There are not one but two choir lofts on the sisters’ wing of the shrine, one for fully professed sisters and a more remote one for others who were not of that status.
– The current shrine altar was built from the wooden screen that used to hide the nuns from view in the shrine.
– In addition to a network of covered walks – “The sisters couldn’t get wet doing their laundry,” Gennaro said – there are rooftop walks on which sisters could get to another building without climbing up and down stairs.
– Some of the original bathrooms in the former convent have marble walls and claw-foot tubs.
– An art room at the top of the school building has an amazing skylight.
– A confessional in the nuns’ choir loft has a place for the penitent to kneel, but the priest’s space is cut in half by a large heating pipe. “It must have gotten very hot in there,” Gennaro said.
– The “date door” – where academy girls were picked up by their boyfriends – still has a sliding wooden panel through which the sisters could peer to make sure everything was as it should be.
Plenty of questions
When a preschooler steps through the Ursuline doors for the first time, she has plenty of questions about all that she sees.
“They’ll look at the statues and ask who those people are,” Gennaro said. “And then they’ll look at the pictures on the wall and ask the same thing. Those are the pictures of their moms and grandmothers, because every graduate from this place (State Street) is on the wall.”
The girls learn from an early age what it means to give back. This year, the special project has been clean water for Africa, but instead of simply taking up a collection, the students learned the reality by hauling plastic jugs of water from place to place.
“They learned what it means to be a woman in Africa,” Gennaro said. “You had to go to the well and see how much it weighed and how many trips you had to make.”
In a way, they are retracing the steps of 12 women who came to foreign land in 1727. Sister Stanislaus wrote in her journal about meeting the dreaded Louisiana mosquito: “They sting without mercy and their sting is very annoying.”
The Ursulines, like the mosquitoes, aren’t going away any time soon.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarion herald.org.