Almost 300 years ago, in 1727, the Ursuline nuns arrived in New Orleans at the invitation of Governor Bienville. While awaiting the completion of their convent in 1734, the Ursuline nuns established a school and an orphanage. The Ursuline Order provided crucial social services as New Orleans developed into the administrative center for the colony of Louisiana, educating girls and managing the hospital. One of the nuns wrote that they cared for sick soldiers a few months after moving into their convent in July of 1734.
In 1787, Spanish philanthropist Don Andres Almonester y Roxas, who also built the Cabildo and St. Louis Cathedral, constructed a new brick chapel for the Ursuline nuns, at his own expense. This chapel facing Ursulines Street was dedicated on March 19, 1787. The chapel had been named “Our Lady of Victory,” but at Don Almonester’s request the new chapel was called “Our Lady of Consolation.”
In December 1810, a large wooden statue of Mary and the child Jesus, carved in France and painted in gold, arrived in New Orleans and was placed in the Ursuline chapel. The statue was titled “Our Lady of Prompt Succor,” in thanks to Pope Pius VII for his “prompt” permission for Mother St. Michel Gensoul to leave France and travel to Louisiana. Mother St. Michel Gensoul and several other French Ursuline nuns responded to requests for assistance from the Ursuline nuns in New Orleans.
On January 7, 1815, the night before the Battle of New Orleans, the statue of Our Lady of Prompt Succor was placed above the chapel entrance. All night long the Ursuline sisters and New Orleans citizens prayed in the Chapel of Our Lady of Consolation while awaiting word from the Chalmette battlefield. Mother Ste. Marie Francis Olivier de Vezin, the Superior of the Ursuline nuns, vowed an annual Mass of Thanksgiving in honor of Our Lady of Prompt Succor if the Americans were spared loss of life in the battle. “The Mother and nuns were still at prayer on January 8 when a courier arrived at the church and made a dramatic entrance proclaiming that General Jackson was victorious,” according to one account. After the battle, Ursuline sisters cared for sick and wounded British and American soldiers at the convent.
A Mass of Thanksgiving celebrating the American victory was held in St. Louis Cathedral on January 23, 1815. Abbe Dubourg, later Bishop Dubourg, presided at the service which was attended by Major General Andrew Jackson and his staff, as well as hundreds of people inside the church and thousands standing outside. Jackson and his staff are said to have visited the Ursuline Convent to pay their respects to the nuns and thank them for their prayers. The Ursuline nuns kept their promise and every year a Mass of Thanksgiving in honor of Our Lady of Prompt Succor is held on January 8th, the anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans.
In 1894, Pope Leo XIII authorized the Ursuline nuns to celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Prompt Succor on the anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans. The solemn coronation of this gold, carved wooden statue of Virgin and Child took place on November 10, 1895. Citizens of New Orleans donated gold and jewels to create crowns for the Virgin and Child. The crowns are only displayed on special occasions and each year during the Mass of Thanksgiving on January 8th. The statue of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, the “Patroness of Louisiana,” resides in the National Shrine at 2701 State Street in uptown New Orleans.
The Archbishop of New Orleans celebrates the Mass in the National Shrine on State Street. The 200th anniversary of the Mass of Thanksgiving will be celebrated on January 8, 2015.
Unfortunately, the Chapel of Our Lady of Consolation facing Ursulines Street no longer exists. A 1928 newspaper article reported that the chapel was condemned and was to be demolished. The Old Ursuline Convent at 1112 Chartres Street can be visited Monday through Saturday, 10:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. An admission fee is charged.