Catholics in the Archdiocese of New Orleans make the request every Sunday at the end of the Family Prayer: “Our Lady of Prompt Succor, hasten to help us.”
This title for the Blessed Mother has a special meaning at Ursuline Academy, whose founding community of sisters established the first all-girls’ school in North America in 1727 and began calling Mary by this name in 1810 – in thanksgiving for her speedy – or “prompt” – assistance.
While holding a small statue of the Blessed Mother, a group of French Ursuline sisters, led by Mother St. Michel Gensoul, prayed for Pope Pius VII’s consent to join the dwindling community of Ursuline sisters based in New Orleans. It would take a miracle: first off, the pope was not recognized in France in the period following the French Revolution; also, Mother Gensoul ran a popular school in Montpellier, France, and was needed in her home country.
As she prayed, Mother Gensoul promised that if she received a prompt and favorable response from the pope, she would have Mary honored under the title of Our Lady of Prompt Succor and commission a statue portraying Mary as a caring mother, holding the baby Jesus.
A mere month after sending their written request to the pope, the sisters received their miracle: permission to sail to New Orleans.
“What do we call Mary here at Ursuline Academy, girls?” asked Niki Fuller, speaking to first graders at a 15-minutePowerPoint presentation on the history of Our Lady of Prompt Succor Jan. 7. When the youngsters came up with the correct answer, Fuller, Ursuline’s director of mission and ministry, defined the words used in the title: “prompt,” or “quick”; and “succor,” derived from the Latin word for “help.”
“Our Mary here at Ursuline Academy is Our Lady of Prompt Succor – ‘Our Lady of Quick Help!’” Fuller said.
In addition to the pope’s quick reply to Mother Gensoul, Our Lady of Prompt Succor’s intercession was credited at two other pivotal times in New Orleans’ history:
• In 1812, when the Ursulines asked for Our Lady’s help in protecting the city from an approaching fire, the wind changed direction, sparing New Orleans.
• Our Lady’s aid was credited again in 1815, when the Ursulines prayed that the outmanned American troops would prevail against the British in the Battle of New Orleans.
Fuller gave the first graders an idea of just how outnumbered the Americans were by designating five students as “the Americans” and the rest of the class as “the British.”
“They thought for sure they were going to lose the fight, but the Americans won!” Fuller told them. “It was like these five girls beat all of y’all!”
In thanksgiving for this miraculous victory, the Ursulines and the archbishop of New Orleans honor Our Lady of Prompt Succor, the patroness of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana, with an annual Mass on the battle’s victory date of Jan. 8. The Mass, requested by President Andrew Jackson, has been celebrated without fail since 1815, and will observe its 200th anniversary in 2015.
“Tomorrow will be the 199th Mass. Next year, when you’re in second grade, it will be the 200th anniversary and there’s gonna be a big celebration in the city!” Fuller told the cheering first graders.
Fuller also drew the youngsters’ attention to the most famous depiction of Our Lady of Prompt Succor – the statue the sisters promised to have made should Mary answer their prayers to go to New Orleans. This statue, inside Ursuline’s National Votive Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, is covered in 24-carat gold leaf.