Walking around the French Quarter is most enjoyable in the spring and fall, when the weather isn’t too overwhelming. With French Quarter Fest coming up over the weekend of April 7-10, a lot of folks will be walking from one music stage to another. As you make the walk from Jackson Square over to the Old US Mint, you might want to make a detour at the corner of Rue Chartres and Rue Ursulines, to tour the oldest building in New Orleans, the Old Ursuline Convent.
The convent complex dates back to 1732, when construction of two buildings designed five years earlier by Ignace Nicholas Broutin, the Chief Engineer of Louisiana, and architect Andre de Batz, was completed, and the Ursuline nuns moved in. Most buildings in the 18th century city were covered with stucco, to offer some defense from the heat and humidity.
Unfortunately, the convent buildings weren’t, and the exposed walls suffered from a great deal of deterioration by 1745. Broutin re-designed the buildings, and they were re-built using brick, which was then covered with stucco. This re-design gave the convent a more plain/institutional look, symmetrical and formal. That wasn’t regarded as a problem at the time, of course, since the nuns used the ground floor of the facility as an orphanage and the second floor as their residence.
The convent’s survival of the massive fires of 1788 and 1794 are why its designation as “oldest building in New Orleans” is a bit dubious. The 1788 fire destroyed 856 buildings; the fire six years later an additional 212. Both fires spared the eastern or “down-river” side of the Quarter. Because the Spanish were in control of the city at the time of both fires, the “French Quarter” is actually more Spanish in style, but the convent remained as a major example of French architecture and design.
By the 1820s, the mission of the Ursulines outgrew their facility. They moved over to Faubourg Treme, turning over the original convent to the Bishop of New Orleans. This is why you sometimes see old postcards of the convent identifying it as the “Archbishop’s Palace.” The bishops (and later archbishops, as the diocese was promoted) lived on Rue Chartres until 1899, when they moved uptown, to the campus of Notre Dame Seminary.
Until the diocese took over in 1825, the main entrance of the convent was on the river side of the building. A chapel and hospital building faced the Decatur Street side of the block. Bishop Duborg had a gatehouse and entrance portico constructed on the Rue Chartres side, effectively re-orienting the building.
The configuration of the bottom floor of the convent as an orphanage made it a good physical plant for a school. The diocese operated a boys school there for two years, but closed the school in 1827 because of high costs. The building was then leased to the city, which operated a school there until 1831, when the convent began a three-year period as the home of the Louisiana Legislature.
In 1845, the diocese constructed a church on Chartres Street, adjacent to the convent, to accommodate the population growth in the lower Quarter. The church, originally named “Our Lady of Victory,” became known as “St. Mary’s Italian Church,” because it became the home parish for the many Italian immigrants who arrived and settled in the neighborhood in the 1880s-90s. As the Italians moved in, the archdiocese (and the Ursulines, now based on Esplanade and N. Rampart) moved out, heading uptown. The convent still housed some archdiocesan offices, but also took on the role of church rectory.
Throughout the first half of the 20th Century, the facility assumed a very localized role, as the parish opened a school there. By the 1970s, the long-closed school had, along with the convent proper, fallen into serious disrepair. An effort to renovate and restore the convent began in 1976, keeping with its status (declared in 1960) as a National Historical Landmark.
Today, the Old Ursuline Convent is restored and a popular historical attraction. It is also part of the Catholic Cultural Heritage Center of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, along with St. Louis Cathedral.
Edward Branley is the author of two books on New Orleans, New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, and Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans. He enjoys sharing his knowledge of the city’s history and culture with readers of his blogs, DailyKos.com, as well as speaking to various organizations in the metro area. He is @YatPundit on Twitter.