When looking for architectural treasures in New Orleans, the Old Ursuline Convent at 1100 Chartres Street is perhaps one of the finest. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960, this beautiful example of French colonial style is thought to be the oldest building and the first permanent structure in the Mississippi Valley. Built in 1752, this is the only remaining French colonial building in the United States.
The Ursuline Sisters came to New Orleans in 1727 and provided to the city the first organized medical care in an area running rampant with disease. The nuns also eventually founded the first local school and orphanage for girls. When visiting the convent, you will see not only the main convent building constructed in 1752, but also St. Mary’s church next door, which was constructed in 1845.
Guided tours are given of the beautiful formal gardens, St. Mary’s church and the first floor of the convent. If you tour the gardens, be sure to explore the herb gardens for which the convent is well known. It was here that a past Ursuline sister learned about the healing effects of plants that spurred her to become the first pharmacist in the United States. Although she was never licensed, she published a book that listed each herb, its curative powers and instructions for use. The herb garden is now planted and maintained by New Orleans chef Horst Pfeffer of Bella Luna restaurant.
Although the convent’s girls school, which was founded in 1727, moved uptown in the 1800s, the Ursuline Academy started by the order is considered to be the oldest girls school in the United States. Today, the Old Ursuline convent is home to the Archdiocesan archives and is known as the “treasure of the Archdiocese”. Although the convent did sustain damage during Hurricane Katrina in the fall of 2005, repairs have been made and the convent is open for docent-led tours.