Fr. Scott Haynes
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. Frightened residents joined the sisters in the convent chapel, begging Our Lady to save them and their homes from the raging wind and flames.
Finally, as the blaze drew too near, the Superior ordered all to evacuate the building. Before leaving, one of the sisters put a small statue of Mary with her Son into a window facing the approaching fire, with the prayer "Our Lady, unless you hasten to save us we are lost!" Then she followed the others to safety. Within minutes, the wind turned back on itself, and in a short time, the fire had lost its momentum and burned out, leaving the remainder of the city unharmed.
The second major miracle occurred in 1815, twenty-seven years after the disastrous fire. General Andrew Jackson's 6,000 American troops faced 15,000 British soldiers on the plains of Chalmette. On the eve of the Battle of New Orleans, New Orleans residents joined the Ursuline sisters at their convent in the French Quarter to pray throughout the night, imploring the help of Our Lady of Prompt Succor. On the morning of January 8, the Very Rev. William Dubourg, Vicar General, offered Mass at the altar on which the statue of Our Lady of Prompt Succor had been placed. Cannon fire could be heard from the chapel.
The Prioress of the Ursuline convent, Mother Ste. Marie Olivier de Vezin, made a vow to have a Mass of Thanksgiving sung annually should the American forces win. At the very moment of communion, a courier ran into the chapel to inform all those present that the British had been defeated. They had become confused by a fog and wandered into a swamp.The Mass ended with the singing of the Te Deum. An annual Mass of Thanksgiving has been held in New Orleans on January 8 ever since and again on the Octave day, January 15. The 200 anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans will occur in 2015, and commemorative events were celebrated. Outside of the New Orleans province the feast is observed after the Epiphany octave on the octave day on January 15 (the octave).