Our History

French Ursulines arrived in New Orleans in 1727 and established the oldest school for girls currently operating in what is now the United States. During a period of crisis after a large group of nuns left New Orleans for Cuba in 1803, Mother St. Andre Madier, one of the seven nuns who remained, appealed to her cousin, an Ursuline in France whom the reign of terror had forced to leave her monastery at Pont-Saint-Espirt. She was Mother St. Michel Gensoul, a remarkable woman of great talent and interior piety, who, during the exile in Montpellier, opened a boarding school for girls there. Fearing for the flourishing school, Bishop Fournier refused to request her leave, saying that only the Pope, then a prisoner of Napoleon, could give such a permission. One day while praying before a statue of the Blessed Mother, she was inspired to say, "O most holy Virgin Mary, if you obtain a prompt and favorable answer to my letter, I promise to have you honored in New Orleans under the title of Our Lady of Prompt Succor."

Since the end of December 1810, when Mother St. Michel, her companions and the statue arrived in New Orleans, devotion to Our Lady of Prompt Succor has grown in New Orleans and Louisiana, and has spread through the United States and even beyond. In the late 19th century, Pope Leo XIII granted the solemn crowning of the statue, an honor carried out splendidly by Archbishop Janssens on November 10, 1895. In 1912 this devotion was officially approved by Rome.

From conversations, letters, contributions, requests for Masses of thanksgiving and similar sources, generations of Ursulines and friends of Our Lady of Prompt Succor have learned about many of the favors granted through the intercession of Our Lady in response to pleas for quick and favorable help. We will never know them all. But those we know are a source of encouragement and hope to all who count on Our Lady's help.

Among them, two interventions of Our Lady in particular come from early New Orleans as important to the city and its people. The first has to do with one of the great fires which periodically threatened the city, the Ursuline Convent included. On Good Friday in 1788, frightened residents joined the sisters in the convent chapel, begging Our Lady to save them and their homes from the raging wind and flames.

Within minutes, the wind turned back on itself, and in a short time, the fire had lost its momentum and burned out, leaving the convent unharmed, while nearly 800 buildings in the City were destroyed.

The second well-known intervention of Our Lady of Prompt Succor concerns the Battle of New Orleans, January 8, 1815. General Andrew Jackson arrived to defend New Orleans on January 23, 1814. He urged the residents and the Sisters to evacuate for fear that the recent burning and pillaging of Washington D.C. by the British Army would also take place in New Orleans, a key port of entry to the mighty Mississippi River. When the Sisters refused to leave, citing the needs of those whom they served, the General asked them to pray, at which time they began all-night vigils of prayer. During the night of January 7, Andrew Jackson and his relatively small, little-prepared and ill-equipped band of soldiers organized their defenses against the large, very well equipped British Army which would attack the city before dawn. At the same time, many citizens not directly involved in the army joined the Ursuline Sisters in their all-night vigil in their chapel on Chartres Street, imploring Our Lady of Prompt Succor to give the victory to Jackson for the United States, saving the city of New Orleans from British control. During the night, the Ursuline Superior, Mother Ste. Marie Olivier de Vezin, promised Our Lady that if Jackson and his men were victorious, a Mass of thanksgiving would be sung every year in memory of her saving help to the city on that day. As dawn was breaking, Bishop DuBourg began a Mass for the same intention. At the very moment of Communion a courier rushed into the chapel announcing that Jackson and his men had won the battle, and the chapel rang out with the joyous singing of the Te Deum. Following the battle, General Jackson wrote a letter to Bishop DuBourg calling for a gathering of all citizens to give thanks for “the great assistance we have received from the Ruler of all events.” 

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An Ursuline Sister of the Pont St. Esprit Convent in France brought “Sweetheart” to New Orleans in the mid-1780s. Sr. Ste. Félicité and two other members of her community had responded to the call for volunteers for the New Orleans Ursuline Community in Louisiana. They were eager to leave for Louisiana, but there were obstacles caused by political unrest in Europe during the latter part of that century.

One day when Sr. Ste. Félicité was in the attic of her convent in France, she found an old plaster statue of the Blessed Virgin. Pained to see this small neglected statue of Our Lady, she prayed: “My Good Mother, if you will quickly remove these obstacles, I shall carry this image of you to New Orleans where I promise to do all in my power to have you honored.”

The next day the good news came that the King of Spain had given permission for the Sisters to depart for Louisiana. Sr. Ste. Félicité kept her promise, and this small statue, fondly called “Sweetheart,” has had a place of honor in the Ursuline Convent of New Orleans for over almost 250 years.

Sweetheart was placed in the window of the Ursuline Convent on Chartres Street facing the raging flames of the 1788 Good Friday fire that destroyed almost 800 buildings in the French Quarter. Her intercession is credited with sparing the Convent from the fire and saving the City from total devastation.

The name “Sweetheart” comes from Mother St. Benoit’s response to Ursuline students and other devotees who prayed for Our Lady’s help. When told of her intercession on their behalf, Mother St. Benoit would always respond, “Oh, Our Lady is such a Sweetheart!”

At the foot of the little statue is a pair of silver Air Force wings. These belonged to Albert Richard, who, when leaving for service in Europe during World War II asked Mother St. Regis Winterhalter if he could take Sweetheart with him. His request could not be granted but he did take pictures of Sweetheart with him and prayed each day for her help in returning him to his family following the war. When he did return, he gave his wings to her in thanksgiving for his safe return. This is just one story of the soldiers who made visits to Sweetheart asking her to return them safely to their families before leaving for service in the Civil War, World War I, World War II and other military conflicts. Written on the stone base of the statue are the words Pont Esprit 1785.

Achille Peretti

Achille Peretti (Alessandria 1857 – New Orleans 1923) was an Italian painter, sculptor and anarchist. After having traveled through the Gulf Coast and Chicago decided to stay in New Orleans. He became a citizen in 1890 and from 1903 until his death lived at the 632 di St. Peter Street in the French Quarter. In the same house lived some years later the American playwright Tennessee Williams.

Circles of Prayer

Generations of Ursulines and friends of Our Lady of Prompt Succor have learned about many of the favors granted through the intercession of Our Lady in response to pleas for quick and favorable help. We will never know them all. But those we know are a source of encouragement and hope to all who count on Our Lady’s help.

The Ursuline Sisters, in a tradition that has continued for over two centuries, gather the written petitions of the faithful in the Sanctuary of the Shrine. The Sisters and the faithful pray daily for these intentions during the celebration of the Eucharist.

We would like to invite you to become part of this tradition by joining the Circles of Prayer that have multiplied throughout the country. Your request for prayers for your special intentions will be physically placed in our Sanctuary and will be remembered each day at daily Mass. Your requests will also be circulated to the Circles that are active nationwide.