New Orleans seems to have more museums than any city on earth: the New Orleans Museum of Art, National World War II Museum, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, Louisiana Children’s Museum, New Orleans African American Museum, ad infinitum.
The list goes on and on.
But here’s one you’ve probably never heard of: the Ursuline Sisters Museum.
“What we have here is a treasure trove of historical items and documents,” says Mary Lee Harris, curator of the collection on State Street. “It is, in effect, the history of New Orleans and Louisiana in our city and state’s dealing over the centuries with the British, the French, the Spanish and finally the government of the United States.”
Harris points out letters from King Louis XV of France, President Thomas Jefferson and President James Madison. She is quick to point out that these are the original documents … not copies.
There are paintings, cooking and dining utensils — some dating back 200 and 250 years. There is a prayer book used by Ursuline students, dated 1830.
There is ornate furniture used by archbishops during contentious times in Louisiana history, statues, musical instruments of the day, uniforms worn by Ursuline Academy students of long ago, a missal dating to 1630 and a bust of President Andrew Jackson made while he was president.
“Only four of those busts were made,” says Sister Carla Dolce, O.S.U., Director of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor. She gives a wink and a prideful smile. “And we have one of them right there.”
The collection has always been part of the Ursuline community, says Sister Rosemary Neiman, O.S.U., archivist of the Ursuline order of nuns. “It’s been located in several places before it was finally placed here. When I was a student here back in the 1940s, it was located on an upper floor above the main entrance.”
“Actually, this museum could be regarded as another classroom when teaching early American history,” says Sister Carla. “We say it is the museum of the Ursuline Sisters and that is true. But any casual visitor can see evidence of so many of our historic roots as a people. It’s all right there before their eyes. The artifacts here are priceless. Just as the lessons taught to us by history are priceless.”
Because the collection is on the second floor of the Ursuline Academy — in a former parlor for visitors and the nuns — it is not kept open to casual visitors or added to commercial tours.
“But we do have various groups of people come through at specific times,” Sister Rosemary says. “Just yesterday, we had open house for the school and there were 200, maybe 300, adults coming through. They all left very intrigued at what they saw. Also, we give tours to our own students who are here and to incoming students when they visit the campus. Also, we have students from the sixth, seventh and eighth grades come through from various schools. They come in small groups of 10, 15, 20 at a time. But, of course, when the school is closed during vacation and holiday times, the museum is locked for security purposes.”
A small group of adults is walking through, stopping to admire this painting and that ornate piece of furniture.
The members of the group speak to one another and ask questions in hushed tones, as though they were traveling through a church or national monument.
“I find the older the person is, the more reverence is paid to any of the thousands of items that are in the museum,” Sister Carla says.
“The same is true with students. The younger ones come in and they stare. And as they grow older, they come back and their sense of the value of these treasures has grown. And we find that some people use every opportunity to come back over and over when the opportunity arises. Most people are in awe at what they see in this museum.
“Somebody once said, ‘We cannot look to the future until we fully know our past.’ This museum is proof of that.”
To arrange a group tour, call Mary Lee Harris, curator, at (504) 473-6750.