Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Old Ursuline Convent - New Orleans, LA (The Casket Girls of New Orleans)

1100 Chartres St.
New Orleans, LA 70116
29.960856,-90.060682

            It goes without saying that the French Quarter contains some of the most concentrated amounts of history and hauntings in the United States. We have also learned that following two huge fires in 1788 and 1794, most of the entire city was destroyed and rebuilt. The few structures that did survive eventually succumbed to time and damaging storms. So far, we have mentioned several of the oldest buildings in the city such as Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop and Madame John’s Legacy. This leaves us to discuss the single oldest building still standing in the city New Orleans. It is only fitting that the oldest building contains a story so outrageous and outlandish, that it could only sound believable in a city such as the Big Easy.
            Our story begins sometime around 1727 when King Louis XV of France ordered a group of Ursuline nuns from Rouen to travel to New Orleans and establish a hospital and school for young children. The building was designed by Ignace Nicholas Broutin, the Chief Engineer of Louisiana, and architect Andre de Batz. Construction was complete in 1734 and the Ursuline nuns moved in. The building was made out of half-timber, also known as columbage. In most cases, this type of wall was protected with stucco or some other substance. Such was not the case with the convent, as the beams were left exposed to the elements. This proved to be disastrous, as the weather soon deteriorated the building and by 1744, it was on the brink of total collapse.

            Learning a valuable lesson, Broutin would try his luck at rebuilding a much more durable building. By 1751 the large Ursuline Convent was complete and was much sturdier than its predecessor. The first floor was used largely for the dormitory, classrooms, refectory and infirmary for the orphanage. The second floor contained living quarters for the nuns, a library, another
Photo of the convent circa 1885.
infirmary and storerooms. The winding staircase is believed to be from the original convent, installed in the new building. It was about the only portion of the home that had not deteriorated. By 1824, the nuns moved to a new larger convent in the Ninth Ward, and the present structure was turned over to the Bishop of New Orleans as a residence. 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. After 1899, it continued to be used as offices for the Archdiocese and later as a rectory for the adjacent St. Mary's Church. During the mid-1900’s, the convent was once again used as a school until it officially closed down in the 1970’s. The entire compound was remodeled and is now part of the Catholic Cultural Heritage Center of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

            For many years, the Ursuline Convent has been shrouded in mystery. The building is a featured stop for many haunted tours and carriage rides. Perhaps, like the LaLaurie Mansion, no one has ever been able to conduct an investigation of the building to validate the strange reports so
Similar casket-like suitcase said to be carried by these
mysterious young ladies.
people’s imaginations run rampant. Others feel it is due to a very strange story that reportedly took place in the early 1700’s and truly sounds like it was taken from a page of an Anne Rice novel. The story is vividly retold in one of the exhibits of the honorably-mentioned, Musée Conti Wax Museum and is known as the Casket Girls of New Orleans. The name sounds like a B-Titled horror movie from the 1960’s. In my most stern promo voice, with beach blanket music in the background, I must say, “See them dance, see them shake, see them drink your blood: The Casket Girls!”

            As I’ve said several times, when New Orleans was founded in 1718, it wasn’t quite established with the most prominent people of society. Not quite the pillars of the community and the salt of the earth if you catch my drift! The city was literally filled with a melting pot of exiled criminals and fugitives from all walks of life. I suppose this was a big reason for so many horrific events that are said to have taken place during this time. One stroll down Bourbon Street at two in the morning and it’s apparent that the descendants of many of these rejects still haven’t left the city! During the mid-1700’s local leaders requested that young available girls be sent from France, in the hopes of being prospective wives for the colonist. I guess you could call it the first mail order bride system, except without the mail and all. The stories vary as to how many young women actually did arrive in New Orleans but rumors have it that they all arrived with small suitcases called casquettes, which were ironically in the shape of small present-day caskets. Hmm, could we have a relation here? 
            No one was quite sure as to the identity of these young women. Some felt they were poor
Interior of the convent's church.
orphans looking for a fresh start, while others thought them to have a much more sinister ulterior motive. The young women fell under strict scrutiny from locals and were often abused, raped or worse. Some were lucky to find homes, others fled back to France while the remaining group are said to have fallen into the underbelly of the city and into a life of prostitution. Whatever the case may be, the convent was now left with a multitude of these strange looking miniature caskets. The nuns reportedly placed these bags, which were said to be mysteriously empty upon arrival, on the third floor. People wandered as to what was the purpose of bringing these strange cases with them if they were ultimately empty. Here is where the story becomes strange, as locals felt that these young women had brought vampires from France to unleash into the city to prey on unsuspecting victims        .

            Obviously, when a sane person hears this outlandish story, they immediately blow the B.S. whistle. Strangely enough, those in the convent took the tales serious enough to secure these items on the third floor and were never to be opened again. Specialized maintenance men were called and a priest was brought in from Rome to bless the tools and nails to seal the windows and doors shut on the third floor. One would assume that the church would not simply take these tales as fact and go through so much hassle just to store some odd-looking suitcases. Did some tragic event take place here that ensured that these mythical creatures may actually exist? No one will ever know the truth, which is what makes the Ursuline Convent so mysterious. Those associated with the convent claim that there is nothing in the attic. If this is the case, why would they keep the area so isolated? Only in New Orleans, would the first incident of illegal aliens consist of vampires!

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