New Orleans History -- Lake Pontchartrain
Friday, July 12, 2024
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Aug. 7, 1727 Ursaline Nuns Arrive in New Orleans

In the 1720s the Company of the West (founded to administer the Louisiana Territory), through Father Beaubois, a Jesuit priest in New Orleans, persuaded the Ursulines of Rouen, France, to establish a convent in Louisiana with a dual objective: 1. To educate the young first; 2. To care for the sick.

The Ursulines graciously accepted the challenge. Mother Superior Tranchepain (an odd name for a nun – translated, it means slice of bread) along with nine nuns, two postulants, one servant and a cat started on their journey to New Orleans.

The first leg of the trip was by stagecoach from Rouen to Lorient, with a side visit to the palace of the King at Versailles. Young Sister Madeline wrote home that while going through Versailles she considered shutting her eyes in fear of what she might see. Versailles at that time was renowned as a veritable palace of sin.

The ship scheduled to take them to their new home was the Girondone. Shortly after leaving port it struck a reef and narrowly escaped being shattered to pieces. This episode was just the first of a series of horrible events still in store. A terrible storm soon struck. The nuns were kept off the main deck in fear that they would be washed overboard. All of them were relegated to one small cabin and literally tied to the secured furniture so they would not be thrown about and injured seriously.

Soon after the first storm ended a second and more violent one enclosed the ship. It was so severe that all the livestock on board died from seasickness. For the passengers death would have been merciful, so debilitating was their trauma. After the big blow the nuns were slowly regaining strength and equilibrium when a pirate ship appeared menacingly off the stern. Although concerned, the captain showed enough firepower to drive away the threat. During the following month yet another storm, less severe than the first and second, hit the ship before it finally arrived at Santo Domingo and solid ground. As a special gift the people of Santo Domingo gave the nuns a barrel of much-treasured sugar.

The next leg of the journey was uneventful. From Santo Domingo to Dauphin Island the nuns were truly jubilant, but prematurely so; the vessel ran aground. Out came the rosaries.

To reduce the weight of the ship the sugar had to be thrown overboard along with cannons and casks of liquor. Personal luggage was to be discarded next.

As the nuns said their rosaries the ship floated free and their belongings were spared. The ship finally reached the mouth of the Mississippi where nuns and luggage were loaded onto pirogues. Against the current they traveled toward their final destination, La Nouvelle Orléans.

Sister Madeline wrote that the five days on the Mississippi –perched atop luggage in unsteady pirogues, swatting mosquitos and looking out for snakes and alligators – were more tedious and treacherous than the seasickness of the storms and the threat of pirates.

In the early morning of Aug. 7, 1727, exactly five months from the day they had left Rouen, France, the Ursulines reached the port city of New Orleans, mosquito bitten and weather-beaten, but happy to arrive in their new home. One young nun wrote home and gave the following first impression: "Upon seeing New Orleans for the first time, I can only say it looks like a large cesspool."

In their training the Ursuline Nuns had learned the meaning of hardship. In their trip from France they endured it and found yet more disappointments after arrival. Construction of the convent which had been pledged to them was scheduled to take six months to complete. Unfortunately, with New Orleans’ proclivity for procrastination it took a total of seven years.

Reefs, storms, seasickness, pirates, mosquitos, snakes, alligators, construction delays and broken promises – none could deter the determined nuns who went on to accomplish their mission with dispatch and distinction.

Source: Buddy Stall at