The Ursuline NunsIn 1727, twelve French Ursuline nuns arrived along the coast of the Louisiana colony, disembarking into the culture shock of a hot, humid, disease ridden, mosquito infested hellish piece of swampland. Many of these women were from the upper crust of society and must have been appalled by the primitive conditions of a colony tucked into the wilds.
The Ursuline order was created in 1532 by Angela Merici and named after the fourth century Saint Ursula, a virgin martyr. The calling of the order was to educate women in the Catholic faith in the wake of Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation. This raison d’etre made the trek with the nuns across the Atlantic despite them being under contract with the Company of the Indies to serve as nurses in the local hospital.
In 1732, construction on a convent began but the buildings were never covered in stucco, which afforded a degree of protection in the searing heat and humidity of the subtropical landscape. By 1745, the buildings were badly deteriorated and construction on a new convent was begun and completed around 1752. The Ursuline convent is the oldest building still standing in the city of New Orleans and is an excellent example of French colonial design from the French colonial period.
Even though their time was partly consumed by medical duties in the local hospital, the nuns immediately created a school for girls to learn spelling, reading, writing, rudimentary math, needlework, and catechism. They educated across color lines and were incredibly successful in their educational mission, to the point that more women in the colony than men were literate. This was an oft neglected colony where an overwhelming percentage of the population was illiterate. At the time the nuns founded their school for girls, there were no educational possibilities for boys.
Despite the contributions of the nuns to the female population, we must note that the nuns did actively engage in the slave trade. By 1770, the number of slaves owned by the nuns placed them in the top 6% of the slave-holding population of the Lower Mississippi River. There is no indication that they found slavery to be contradictory to the teachings of Christ or in any way distasteful. The nuns simply approached it as business transactions in order to keep their plantation lands running and income producing to continue their educational goals. This is a stain on the Order but the history of the nuns should be viewed as a whole.
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