Saturday, September 5, 2009


Some days when I attend Morning Prayer and Eucharist at St. Mary’s Convent, Sewanee, I sit and watch the nuns and ponder their community life together. Why did they decide to come to the Convent? How long was their spiritual journey? Do they ever miss their place of origin? One of the oldest ones, Sr. Mary Zita, fascinates me because she seldom speaks, and little is known about her former life in the Philippines. When I look at these Marian nuns, I’m reminded of stories I read about the Religious who settled in south Louisiana, who waded through dangerous swamps to reach a place where they could build their convent homes. By contrast, contemporary nuns are, perhaps, more fortunate, and as I watch the Marians, I think about the unflappable nuns who formed the Ursuline Convent in New Orleans. I wrote a profile of a little nun named Madeleine Hachard, (Sister Stanislaus) in my book, THEIR ADVENTUROUS WILL, and as I reflected on the lives of the St. Mary nuns, I remembered some of the details of that long essay. This was my reflection, an abbreviated version of the original profile of Madeleine Hachard:

Seated before the altar, eight nuns claim their lofty perch on the bluff at St. Mary’s. They are dressed in blue jumpers and white blouses, the uniforms of school girls, and most of them traveled over dry land to reach this bluff sanctuary. Their journey to a spiritual home differs markedly from the journey of the Ursuline nuns who, in 1726, were struck by a vision: education for Louisiana women. Nine nuns and two postulants boarded La Gironde in Rouen, France and sailed five months on the rocky ocean, bound for New Orleans and the New World. At one point, they threw sheep, chickens, and luggage filled with their habits into the sea, lightening the load to avoid sinking.

Marauding pirates threatened La Gironde, but the marauders were unable to pass through the nuns’ wall of prayer. At Dauphin Island, La Gironde ran aground, sinking into five feet of sand and muck. The vessel soon dislodged, still carrying its human cargo, but ran aground again and finally anchored at La Belize. The nuns disembarked, black skirts billowing, and were forced into narrow pirogues where they sat atop mattresses and chests, slowly covering the thirty leagues up the Mississippi River to their destiny. They stopped before sunset each day to avoid swarming maringouins (mosquitoes) and were awakened by hard rain, their mattresses afloat, their habits drenched. The nuns’ faces and legs swelled with colds and rheumatism, but they moved on. Intrepid as the women were, they shuddered at the sight of snakes, scorpions, and crocodiles teeming in the swamps.

For nine days, the Ursulines paddled upriver to New Orleans, searching for a green-shuttered convent with thin cloth on the windows – windows that allowed enough light to illuminate their vision of the new school. It was soon filled with boarders – slave women, orphan girls, and abused women seeking protection and learning. The Ursuline Academy, a white stucco building with cypress beams and handmade brick walls, became a beacon of learning, one of the first institutions of learning for Louisiana women in the 18th century.

Some of the Rouen nuns suffered in the damp Louisiana climate and returned to Normandy, France, leaving their chronicler, devoted Sister Stanislaus, behind. However, before dying, she wrote: “Religion seems to present to the eyes nothing but thorns, but after having experienced them, these thorns are changed into roses.”
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