Old Ursuline Convent keeping the French Quarter French

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NEW ORLEANS -- The Ursuline Sisters have been as much a part of New Orleans' 300-year history as anyone else. And, the Old Ursuline Convent has been around for almost as long.

"The convent was completed in 1752, roughly. And it is the oldest structure in the Mississippi Valley," says Dr. Emilie Gagnet Leumas, Director of Archives and Records with the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

The Ursuline Sisters came to New Orleans in 1727. "They came here with two missions," says Leumas. "One, to work at the Royal Hospital. And the other, which became, really, their legacy and what they still are known for today, is for educating young women."

The sisters needed a place to live. They got one in 1734 near the site of the present building. But, that first building didn't last long.

"They put the walls up before they put the roof on, and, the building quickly deteriorated," says Leumas.

The next version of the building is the one we see today.

"It has this great French aura to it," explains Leumas. "You look on the outside and you think, 'Oh, those are great big French stones that are holding up this building.' No. It is brick between post. It is the typical French way they would build. And, then, because they didn't have stones, they would--on the outside--they would use a plaster and make it look like stone."

The Old Ursuline Convent was built to last. But, that's not the only reason it has made it this long. In fact, after surviving a major fire in 1788, you may say that it is a miracle the convent didn't burn.

"When the fire starts, the cathedral burns to the ground. Eighty percent of the city burns to the ground," says Leumas. "The sisters put a statue in the window, which is Our Lady of Prompt Succor. And, the winds changed."

When the city was rebuilt after the 1788 fire, it was the Spanish doing the rebuilding. That's why the French Quarter isn't really that French when it comes to its architecture.

But, the Old Ursuline Convent remains a clear example of the French origins of New Orleans. And anyone can see it. The Old Ursuline Convent Museum is open Monday through Saturday for self-guided tours. It is located at 1100 Chartres Street. General admission is $8.00 with discounts for seniors, student, and military.