The Old Ursuline Convent is one of the most historically significant buildings in New Orleans. Established for the Sisters of the Order of Saint Ursula who arrived in New Orleans from Rouen, France in the 1720s, this walled complex consists of several buildings, the oldest being the main building dating back to the early 1750s.

Historical Significance

Having survived the fires of 1788 and 1794, this National Historic Landmark is the last remaining structure from the days of French rule in New Orleans. It’s also reportedly the oldest building in the Mississippi River Valley. The convent, now under the direction of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, serves as a venue for weddings and is open to the public for self-guided tours. However, ticket prices are relatively high considering the simplicity of the exhibits, so if historical religious sites aren’t your cup of tea, you may want to skip this one.

Starting Your Tour

To begin your tour of the complex, which includes a visit to the main building (ground floor), courtyards, and the adjoining Church of Saint Mary, purchase your entrance ticket at the gatehouse and make your way across the courtyard to the main building.

The Main Building

Built to replace the first convent on this site (which reportedly succumbed to the local weather in the 1740s), this wide, two-story grey building initially served as the nuns’ residence. Over time, it housed an orphanage and a Catholic boys’ school. The convent building has also served as:

  • The seat of the Louisiana legislature (in the 1830s)
  • A bishop’s residence
  • Archdiocese administrative offices and archives
  • The Catholic Cultural Heritage Center of the Archdiocese of New Orleans (since 2004)

Entering through the central foyer, you’ll see the cypress staircase with a wrought iron banister. From here, you’ll have access to the ground floor rooms, such as the Ursuline Room (formerly the orphan’s dining room), which serves as an exhibition space.

Exhibits and Artifacts

The various items you may see on display include:

  • A statue of Mary from the Ursuline Convent in Rouen, France
  • A small collection of objects and artifacts, such as archival documents reflecting the history of the convent
  • Glass bottles and medicinal supplies used by the nuns to treat patients in the Royal Hospital

The National Shrine of the Order of Saint Lazarus

Just past the Ursuline Room, you’ll see a small chapel that serves as the National Shrine of the Order of Saint Lazarus. Decorative features here include:

  • An altar adorned with a giant scallop shell
  • A monochrome bas-relief depicting the raising of Lazarus, created by sculptor Charles Reinike III
  • Bas-reliefs of the Grand Priory coats of arms
  • Flags and banners of the Military and Hospitaller Order of Saint Lazarus of Jerusalem

The Church of Saint Mary

Passing through the chapel, make your way to the adjoining Church of Saint Mary. This mid-19th century church, dedicated to Our Lady of Victory and built on the site of a previous chapel, served as the bishop’s place of worship. It’s often referred to as Saint Mary’s Italian Church due to its predominantly Italian-American congregation.

Interior Features

The church’s interior features:

  • A marble altar adorned with Corinthian columns and statues of angels
  • Painted ceilings (notice the coat of arms of the Archdiocese of New Orleans at the center)
  • Stained glass windows
  • The original 19th-century organ above the main entrance
  • Several painted statues, such as Saints Michael and Rosalia of Palermo

The baptistry, located to the right of the main entrance, features an ornate baptismal font. Behind it, a fleur-de-lis emblazoned spiral staircase leads to the choir loft.

The Back Garden

After visiting the church, make your way back through the convent to the back garden. Though a large white tent may obscure the majority of the view, you can stroll along the perimeter to see the colorful mosaic on the back wall of the complex. Dedicated to Our Lady of Prompt Succor, the mosaic was created in 1997 by Florentine glass artist Professor Sergio Papucci.

The Kitchen Building

Stroll along the wall to the opposite side of the tent, where you’ll see a double-galleried building (not currently open to the public) that was built for the nuns to serve as the convent kitchen.

Your tour ends here. Now, make your way back through the convent to the front courtyard and exit through the gatehouse.

Getting There and Ticket Info

  • Location: The Ursuline Convent is located at 1112 Chartres Street, a 5-minute walk from Jackson Square.
  • Admission: Adult tickets are $8.00 for a self-guided tour.

Additional Information

  • The Order of Saint Ursula, also known as the Ursulines, is a Roman Catholic religious order founded in 1535 by Saint Angela Merici.
  • The Ursuline nuns were the first Catholic nuns to establish a convent in the New World, arriving in New Orleans in 1727.
  • Along With their religious duties, the Ursuline nuns played a crucial role in educating young women and caring for the sick and orphaned in colonial New Orleans.
  • The convent’s main building is an excellent example of French colonial architecture, with its wide, two-story design and distinctive dormers.
  • The Old Ursuline Convent is one of the few remaining buildings from the French colonial period in New Orleans, as most of the city’s earliest structures were destroyed by fires or demolished during the 19th century.
  • The convent is reportedly haunted by the ghosts of former nuns and orphans, with many visitors claiming to have experienced paranormal activity during their tours.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Allow at least 1-2 hours for your self-guided tour to fully appreciate the historical significance of the site.
  • Photography is permitted inside the convent and church, but be respectful of any religious services or events that may be taking place.
  • The convent is not fully accessible for visitors with mobility issues, as there are stairs and uneven surfaces throughout the complex.
  • If you’re interested in learning more about the history of the Ursuline nuns and their role in New Orleans, consider purchasing a guidebook or attending one of the occasional guided tours offered by the Archdiocese.
  • Be sure to explore the surrounding French Quarter neighborhood, which offers a wealth of historic sites, museums, and restaurants within walking distance of the convent.

A visit to the Old Ursuline Convent offers a fascinating glimpse into the early history of New Orleans and the important role played by the Ursuline nuns in the city’s development. While the self-guided tour may not be as comprehensive as some visitors might like, the opportunity to explore one of the oldest buildings in the Mississippi River Valley and see rare artifacts from the French colonial period makes it a worthwhile stop for history buffs and curious travelers alike. So step back in time and discover the enduring legacy of the Ursuline nuns at this unique New Orleans landmark.

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