By Dr. Emilie Leumas, Clarion Herald Contributing writer
River of Faith: 300 Years as a New Orleans Catholic Community
In 2015, New Orleans commemorated the 200th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans. While much of the United States overlooked the significance of the battle and its place in history, the Archdiocese of New Orleans curated an exhibit highlighting the power of prayer and the protection of Our Lady of Prompt Succor.
While the men of New Orleans were armed to join the small number of American troops under Gen. Andrew Jackson to guard and protect the mouth of the Mississippi River, the Ursuline nuns, along with the apostolic administrator, Father Louis Guillaume DuBourg, and pious women and children prayed for victory.
Today, we highlight the relationship between the church and state during the months of December 1814 and January 1815.
Archival material from 1814
There are letters from men and women – Joseph O’Conway, a U.S. Naval surgeon; Gen. Jackson; Father DuBourg and the Ursulines – that enable us to tell the story from their experiences and in their words. They are part of the many who lived, worked, fought and prayed during the Battle of New Orleans.
This is their story.
O’Conway, born and baptized in New Orleans, was raised in Philadelphia but returned to New Orleans as a surgeon in the United States Navy. He wrote frequently to his father, describing the heroic efforts of the people and Gen. Jackson:
“My dear Father,
“The British entered the lakes, on the 13th of December, took all our flotilla of five gunboats, after three had withstood forty odd of their barges, mounted with long sixes, for one hour and fifty minutes. Our brave tars did not surrender, till their guns could no longer be managed, from the number of the wounded and slain being so great…”
On Dec. 16, 1814, as panic spread throughout the city, Gen. Jackson proclaimed martial law. Father DuBourg, apostolic administrator for the Diocese of Louisiana, responded by composing a mandate for public prayers. The mandate was read at both morning and evening services on Sunday, Dec. 18, 1814.
Gen. Jackson was so pleased by the mandate that he requested Adjutant Gen. Thomas L. Butler, aide-de-camp, to respond on his behalf, imploring Father DuBourg to have the mandate printed and circulated.
On Dec. 19, the three days of prayer commenced. Four days later, the British were discovered on Villere plantation, just below New Orleans. This event was so noteworthy, Père Antoine de Sedella recorded it in the margins of the sacramental registers of St. Louis Cathedral.
As part of the religious community’s daily life, the Ursuline nuns recorded in their annals the historic events of the day. These annals are a concise form of historical representation, written chronologically, year by year. One of the notable events began on page 138, under the title, “Attaque des Anglais.” The “Attack of the English” was a three-page entry that described the events surrounding the Battle of New Orleans.
In the Ursuline annals, the sisters recorded the following:
“The community together with all of the city was in grand consternation over the subject of the attack of the English and while all of the inhabitants went to the battlefield, all of the pious women and good black women went to the chapel of the Ursulines for prayer. We placed the statue of Our Lady of Prompt Succor on the altar and our sisters made a promise that if the city gained victory, we would sing every year a Solemn Mass in thanksgiving. Father DuBourg, Apostolic Vicar, celebrated Mass to pray to God of the Army through the intercession of Our Lady of Prompt Succor to deliver the city from the evil by which it was threatened. At the moment of Holy Communion, a messenger arrived in the church and announced in a loud voice the defeat of the English. Thus, that grand army commanded by generals, proud of their ability in military art, was cut in pieces.
“After the battle, the sick and wounded soldiers were received in the house where we hold the class for the externs, and nursed by the religious for three months. There were more than 50 beds. The boarders and the orphans have been gone since the 23rd of December 1814 and the Ursulines became nurses…”
Ursulines nursed British
The tender care of these skillful and charitable nurses was so highly appreciated by their patients that British veterans were seen to weep like children when obliged to leave with their officers; while the Kentuckians and Tennesseans, no less grateful than brave, were for many years accustomed to sending large baskets filled with bacon, fruit, etc., as tokens of gratitude to their Ursuline Mothers.
Sister St. Angela Johnston’s devotedness to the sick and wounded entitles her to a particular mention. Sister Angela was only a novice at the time, but she could speak English, while the other nursing sisters could not. When she was absent, the wounded men would say to one another, “Wait until the little sister, the white-veiled one, comes. She will understand you and give you whatever you want.”
After the battle, Gen. Jackson wrote to Father DuBourg on Jan. 19, 1815, requesting a service of public thanksgiving to be held in the cathedral. On Jan. 23, 1815, the victory pageant began with military companies lining the streets to the cathedral. The balconies and windows of the Cabildo and Presbytere were crowded with spectators. In the middle of the square, a triumphal arch supported by six columns was erected and enhanced by two young girls representing justice and liberty.
Jackson walks into cathedral
At the appointed hour, Jackson and his aides appeared and passed through the arch. Father DuBourg, dressed in his finest vestments, stood amid the clergy. He congratulated Jackson and welcomed him to the cathedral. Father DuBourg was ordained bishop of New Orleans later in the year.
According to the Ursuline accounts, Jackson visited the Ursulines on at least two separate occasions. The first took place shortly after the battle when he and his staff came to the convent to thank the nuns for their prayers. As the city celebration was at hand, the sisters wanted to participate in the celebration and did so by contributing to the banquet feast.
In 1823, the Ursulines moved to their new convent on Dauphine Street, just down river from their French Quarter property. The Ursulines donated the French Quarter convent buildings to Bishop DuBourg and his successors with conditions regarding instructions in catechism for black women in the area and Masses to be celebrated at the convent.
Also in 1823, in the New Orleans City Directory, there appeared a description of the cathedral and this one significant sentence: “In this church (cathedral) the victory over the British is annually commemorated, by Te Deum, on the 8th of January.”
Five years later in 1828, General Jackson, newly elected as president of the United States, visited the Ursulines. Two of the sisters who attended this occasion were alive in 1890 and recalled with pleasure the event.
“He was accompanied by a host of friends, both ladies and gentlemen, for whose carriages there was scarcely place on the spacious lawn in front of the parlors,” they wrote.
‘Immortal honors’ gained
The words of Joseph O’Conway express the sentiments of the victorious citizens of New Orleans:
“Let all Europe hear, that the elite of those troops, who boasted having carried, the most redoubtable fortresses in Spain … achieved the dethronement of the Emperor Napoleon; have been defeated, in sight of the City of New Orleans, by a heterogeneous description of farmers, merchants, lawyers, boatmen, tailors, doctors, clerks; in fact, every kind of professional, and tradesmen, forming the population of a country. Tell it at Washington City, that the state of Louisiana, where the Government expected the least patriotism, has fairly driven away and compelled those troops, to reembark with the loss of two-thirds of their army, most of their Generals and other officers. Let the bright example of Louisianian glory be caught throughout the Eastern rebellious States. Let them learn, what immortal honors have been gained, by the heroes of New Orleans…”
Emilie G. Leumas, PhD, CA, CRM, is archivist of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.