Three Marianites, Sr. Mary Calvery, Sr. Mary of the Five Wounds and Sr. Mary of the Nativity, arrived in New Orleans on May 1, 1849 along with 5 Holy Cross brothers. The Family of Holy Cross had been founded in Le Mans, France only eight years earlier. There journey from France had taken them first to Indiana, where two universities were established - Notre Dame University and St. Mary’s. In 1848, the brothers and sisters were sent to Kentucky but no permanent mission was ever established. Being freed from ministry in Kentucky, they were sent to New Orleans where the Marianites assisted the brothers in administering St. Mary’s Orphan Boys’ Asylum. The actual location is on Mazant St. between Royal and Chartres.
In 1851, Sr. Mary of the Five Wounds petitioned the Congregation to open an orphanage and industrial school for young girls in the city because she recognized their desperate need for shelter and education. Thus, began the genesis of the Academy of Holy Angels. In 1853, the Marianites purchased the property we know today as Holy Angels from Celeste Powell, a free woman of color, for $275.00.
Today, there are 6 buildings and an interior parking area compose the Oasis. Each has a story and each holds fond memories for women around the world.
We begin in the oldest of the buildings, 1011 Gallier Street, which is best known as the "Gray Building." Today, the first floor of this building serves as the offices of the Congregational Administration staff in North America. Points of interest on this floor: the doors were each brought back to their original state - Louisiana cypress. The wall hangings in the halls are all various titles of Mary that are works of our sisters or gifts to the sisters. Two significant pieces are found in the Office of our Congregational Leader. The marble mantel is one of twenty that were shipped from France to Louisiana for the Academy building as a gift of ours sisters in France. During the1994 renovation, three mantels were moved to this building. Above the mantel is a work of are that depicts our founder, Basil Moreau, sending the Family of Holy Cross as missionaries to North America. The large white cabinet in the secretary’s office was moved from the third floor of the Academy building and served as the storage cabinets for the boarders.
Ascending the stairs to the second floor, we enter the Holy Angels Convent and we recall the many young women - orphans, students, postulants, novices and Marianites who have used these stairs. It was in June, 1854 that Sr. Mary of the Five Wounds received permission from Fr. Moreau to begin a novitiate to train women to become Marianites.
On the right side is the community room, which was furnished with many of the pieces from the chemistry lab of the Academy during the 1994 renovation. This rooms also give us direct access to St. Joseph Convent, the Assisted Living facility that was the site of the Normal School of Holy Angels, the beginning of Our Lady of Holy Cross College.
The second floor has eight bedrooms and a wonderful cypress closet that once held the belongings for many sisters. We know that the oak flooring in the hall was added in 1936. The second floor porch is hidden away and is a great place for prayer.
The third floor, which holds many interesting souvenirs of the Congregation, served as the novitiate until 1960. The floors are all red pine, thirty-two coats of grey paint were removed for it to return to its original beauty. The pew along the side wall was once was in the Chapel. Again, there is a marble mantel. You will also find one of the fluting machines which was used to make the fluted cap that the sister wore until 1965 and the small machine used to make the cincture. The table served in the dining room for the Marianites for many years. The cane chairs are originals believed to have come from France.
As we move from the community room, note that the piece above the door to the pantry in from the confessional. The picture of Mother Mary of the Seven Dolors was taken of our first superior general when she visited New Orleans. The bisque statue of Mary is another piece that was sent from France. It is a tradition of the house that the names of all living Marianites are placed in one bowl and the sisters pick a name each morning and pray for that sister; especially when going up the three flights of stairs!
We move into the living room where you will find one of the original cypress closets. We are told that this held the dresses (habits) for the novices and postulants. The large mantle was taken from one of the parlors in the Academy building. Many of our sisters have had their picture taken in front of this mantlepiece dressed as Brides of Christ. The beautiful statue on the mantle is known as the Expectant Madonna and was sent by our sisters in France when the Immaculate Conception became a dogma of our faith in 1854. The grandmother clock that was in the principal’s office was a gift to the Marianites.
The dining room is filled with furniture from Marianite convents closed over the years. The table with many drawers is from the convent in Houma, LA. In earlier days, each sister was assigned a place at the table: in your drawer was kept a place setting of silver and linen napkin (which you used for a week). This was also where you received your mail. The chairs that you see were used by boarders in the study hall. The small chair in the corner is from the days when there were primary grades at the Academy. The fire extinguisher is from the convent in Franklin. The two china cabinets, along with the crystal and china, are from other convents around Louisiana.
As we walk down the hall, we see two guest bedrooms. Each of the rooms contains a rocker that has been at Holy Angels for a long time. Many who still remember warming themselves at the fireplace in the St. James room. Each room in the original convent was dedicated to a saint, hence the brass name plate above the door. The desk and chair in the St. James room are from the days when boarders roamed the buildings. In the hall, between the guest rooms, is a picture of St. Anthony that for many years hung in the school library. It is believed to be a gift from the Franciscan priests who served as chaplains at the Academy. At the end of the hall is the marble piece that once was part of the Marianites’ headstone at St. Vincent’s Cemetery. In 1991, all of the remains of the sisters were moved to the mausoleum at Our Lady of Holy Cross. The headstone weighs three tons... an eighteen-wheeler and a crane delivered it to the third floor, ten men to set it in place. There is a steel beam under it, making this spot the most secure place in the house. Across the hall is a small Chapel which is used by Holy Angels’ local community for daily prayer. A picture of the Holy Face which was always kept near the tabernacle in the main chapel. The tabernacle was sent to New Orleans from Canada. The crucifix is from Our Lady of Princeton. In the reading corner, at the end of the hall is a cabinet that served as a medicine cabinet and also as a candy cupboard. It contains some wonderful mementoes collected over the years: a few square nails, a shoe, a pair of glasses, a teapot used to serve sisters when the building was the infirmary, and two of Mother Mary of the Seven Dolors’ holy cards.
The back stairwell was created during the renovation to meet fire codes. As you walk down, you see some of the artwork of our sisters on the walls.
We move from the Grey building to the Chapel of Our Lady of Seven Dolors, constructed in 1885, the same year that the sycamore trees were planted in front of the Academy building. In 1973, the chapel was became the library for the school. In 1995, the chapel was renovated and is used by people throughout the city as a conference hall and place of prayer. The Blessed Sacrament is kept in the small Eucharistic chapel, the former sacristy. The altar is the table of the original altar. It is made of cypress and the three panels in the front can be removed. The carpenter who restored the altar said he had never held a piece of cypress the size of the sorrowful heart of Mary. We might add that each of the seven swords can be removed, but each fits in only in its proper place. The statues on either side of the altar where moved to the chapel in 1998 from Our Lady of Princeton in New Jersey. Each is a solid piece of wood that was carved in Italy. The statue of the Sorrowful Mother is important to the Family of Holy Cross. The sending of the Congregation serves as a challenge to always be in mission. The windows of the chapel are German with the exception of the two American pieces on either side of the crucifix. The crucifix is a gift of the Archdiocese of New Orleans to the Marianites, used at the Eucharistic Congress in 1938. The cross, that was struck by lightning in1982, has been restored and replaced on top the bell tower in 2000.
As we leave the Chapel, we see the Academy building. In the midst of the Civil War, the Marianites assumed the awesome responsibility of constructing this building. The cornerstone was laid on May 3, 1862 and the building was dedicated on October 2, 1865; feast of the Angels. From 1865 until 1992, the Marianites were known for the quality of education that students received at the Academy. Young women traveled from all sections of the city to attend Holy Angels. From the 30's and until 1956, young women from Central America came to the Academy boarding school. In 1992, the Academy of Holy Angels closed its doors as a school. From 1992 to 1998, various groups used the buildings while the Marianites sought other ways to use the buildings for ministry, continuing its 140-year tradition of service. In1999, the Marianites entered into a collaborative project with the Willwoods Community to convert the building into thirty-three apartments for the elderly on a fixed income. This project, known as Malta Court at Holy Angels, opened its doors in August, 2000 to the elderly.
We now move to the Cafeteria/Concert Hall that was built in 1923. The cafeteria has seen numerous renovations. It serves the residents on the property and the staff on the property. The cafeteria is used for day events by groups who need food service. It is also used daily by clients of ARC as a morning and afternoon drop-off point. The food service is known for their great cookies.
The second floor is called the Concert Hall and served as the auditorium until the gymnasium was completed in 1964. Today, this is the gathering spot for groups, especially the Academy alumnae. Please note that the room is filled with pictures from the past. The large piece of furniture is the original desk from the Archives.
As we move from this building to St. Joseph Convent, we pass the parking lot. This was the former location for the gymnasium that served from 1964 - 2000.
The final building on the tour, St. Joseph Convent, was completed in 1936. It served as the convent for the Marianites at Holy Angels and other sisters who taught in nearby schools. In 1995, a renovation project converted the building to an assisted living facility for our sisters. In May1996, eighteen of our senior sisters returned to Holy Angels, to make offer more space available at Our Lady of Holy Cross College. Today, it is serves as one the of our powerhouses of prayer. Let us point out a few modifications - the solarium was created from a walkway to give the impression of being outside while still in the house. The staircase is original. The small shelves outside of each bedroom was created from marble that was used as partitions in the former "gang bathrooms." The Crucifix in the chapel was moved from Our Lady of Princeton. The Our Lady of Sorrows Statue in the chapel is a gift to the sisters and an original work of art created in Italy in 1999.
A trip to Holy Angels would not be complete without taking a walk on the grounds. There are six grottos on the property. The largest grotto is of Our Lady of Lourdes. There is a shrine of the Sacred Heart and Sorrows. The our Lady of Grace grotto holds memories; any of the Academy students remembers crowning Our Blessed Mother on May mornings. In the corner of Congress and Rampart Streets is a small Mary grotto. This grotto serves as a reminder of our arrival in New Orleans in 1849 since it is closest to the original building where the Family of Holy Cross first worked. The statue to St. Joseph outside the chapel is worn with time but more especially with the years of prayer for the buildings and the people who have and do make Holy Angels... holy ground.
It is with that thought that we conclude this tour. This is holy ground because of the faith, hope and trust... Fr. Moreau would have said "God’s Providence"... that has brought us to this moment in time. We ask you to pause and to pray for all who have been part of this Oasis in the Ninth Ward, and for all who will come as we begin a new century... may Holy Angels always be a source of hope and place of growth.