Masterless Mistresses: The New Orleans Ursulines and the Development of a New World Society, 1727-1834 / Edition 1

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During French colonial rule in Louisiana, nuns from the French Company of Saint Ursula came to New Orleans, where they educated women and girls of European, Indian, and African descent, enslaved and free, in literacy, numeracy, and the Catholic faith. Although religious women had gained acceptance and authority in seventeenth-century France, the New World was less welcoming. Emily Clark explores the transformations required of the Ursulines as their distinctive female piety collided with slave society, Spanish colonial rule, and Protestant hostility.

The Ursulines gained prominence in New Orleans through the social services they provided—schooling, an orphanage, and refuge for abused and widowed women—which also allowed them a self-sustaining level of corporate wealth. Clark traces the conflicts the Ursulines encountered through Spanish colonial rule (1767-1803) and after the Louisiana Purchase, as Protestants poured into Louisiana and were dismayed to find a powerful community of self-supporting women and a church congregation dominated by African Americans. The unmarried nuns contravened both the patriarchal order of the slaveholding American South and the Protestant construction of femininity that supported it. By incorporating their story into the history of early America, Masterless Mistresses exposes the limits of the republican model of national unity.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Clark's enjoyable, punchy account . . . will prove valuable not only for what it brings to the history of New Orleans and Louisiana but also what it signifies about the intertwining of Franco-Iberian-Anglo-American societies and their faiths in the Americas.—American Historical Review

Innovative and carefully researched . . . opens up the world of Gulf Coast Catholicism.—Books & Culture

Groundbreaking social history.—H-Net Reviews

With this finely crafted study, Clark contributes substantively to the burgeoning field of scholarship acknowledging the seminal roles women religious have played historically in the formation of American culture and society.—Register of the Kentucky Historical Society."

A deeply imagined, beautifully written, and thoroughly researched account of the earliest order of Catholic sisters in what is now the United States. . . . General and specialist readers alike will be grateful to Clark for the vivid story she tells.—Church History

So thorough it encompasses every aspect that touches on the order of the Sisters of Saint Ursula.—Louisiana History

Written with elegant precision. . . . Essential reading for those seeking to understand the intimate scale of racial and social transformations that occurred in a unique southern city.—Journal of American History

Elegant prose and riveting narrative . . . a tour de force that will intrigue any student of early American women's history.—Journal of the Early Republic

This meticulously researched and engaging book makes an important contribution to our understanding of the intertwined histories of race, gender, and religion in American history.—The Catholic Historical Review

From the Publisher
"A deeply imagined, beautifully written, and thoroughly researched account of the earliest order of Catholic sisters in what is now the United States. . . . General and specialist readers alike will be grateful to Clark for the vivid story she tells."
Church History

"So thorough it encompasses every aspect that touches on the order of the Sisters of Saint Ursula."
Louisiana History

"Innovative and carefully researched . . . opens up the world of Gulf Coast Catholicism."
Books & Culture

"With this finely crafted study, Clark contributes substantively to the burgeoning field of scholarship acknowledging the seminal roles women religious have played historically in the formation of American culture and society."
Register of the Kentucky Historical Society."

"Elegant prose and riveting narrative . . . a tour de force that will intrigue any student of early American women's history."
Journal of the Early Republic

"This meticulously researched and engaging book makes an important contribution to our understanding of the intertwined histories of race, gender, and religion in American history."
The Catholic Historical Review

"Written with elegant precision. . . . Essential reading for those seeking to understand the intimate scale of racial and social transformations that occurred in a unique southern city."
Journal of American History

A superb book on a neglected topic in early American history.
—Susan Juster, University of Michigan

Clark deepens our understanding of life in early New Orleans through this absorbing study of the Ursuline convent.
—Daniel H. Usner Jr., Vanderbilt University

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Emily Clark is assistant professor of history at Tulane University.

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Read an Excerpt

masterless mistresses


The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2007 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8078-3122-9

Chapter One


If you could, Gentlemen, induce four good gray sisters to come and settle here and take care of the sick, it would be much better. -Jacques Delachaise to the Company of the Indies, 1723

A map of New Orleans drawn less than four years after the arrival of the Ursulines belies the poverty and social instability that were its hallmarks in the 1720s. It shows a town graced with large private residences, formal gardens, and carefully designed public spaces. Set at the focal point of its grid of streets, the young colonial capital boasted a sizable parish church that faced onto a public parade ground bordered by the official buildings of the proprietors. The impression is one of a modest but proper French urban space, replete with the basic ceremonial and aesthetic components essential to creating a setting of civility (see Figure 4).

"Our city is very beautiful, well constructed and regularly built," the Ursuline novice Marie Madeleine Hachard reported to her father shortly after her arrival in New Orleans in 1727. "The streets are very wide and laid out inlines," and the well-built houses are "whitewashed, paneled, and sunlit." When they disembarked from their pirogues upon reaching New Orleans, the Ursuline missionaries were taken to their temporary quarters, which Marie claimed was "the most beautiful house in the city." The building had two stories and a garret and gave the nuns "all the necessary apartments." Yet, for all its fine attributes, the Ursulines' house was located on the edge of the city, its garden bounded on two sides by the thick woods from which the new urban space had only recently been cleared. The dwelling was intended to serve as the convent only until a permanent building could be constructed to house the nuns. The future convent site was at the opposite end of the city, at the corner of the square of cleared land that marked the settlement. Both spaces were situated as far from the town's physical centers of church and state as was possible (see Figure 5).

The marginal siting of the nuns' two convents might have been unintentional, but it was a striking harbinger of the nature of the nuns' relationship with the official axes of power in the colony, who were at best lukewarm about their presence and at worst openly hostile toward them. Nor did the effusive description of New Orleans rendered by Marie Hachard comport with either the realities of the frontier capital or its tainted reputation in France. The mother superior of the little missionary band, Marie Tranchepain, and the chief colonial administrator of the colony, Commissioner Jacques Delachaise, were less sanguine in their assessments of both the city's promise and the prospects for a close and happy partnership between the nuns and the men who held the reins of civil and ecclesiastical authority. The tensions that characterized the relationship between religious women and male authorities in France in the 1720s leaped the Atlantic with ease. Yet, perhaps to everyone's surprise, the Ursuline establishment in New Orleans survived a rocky start, and the colonial capital began to take on the characteristics of a settled community.

In the early autumn of 1723, Commissioner Delachaise surveyed his realm of responsibility and despaired. Upon arriving in Louisiana the previous April, he promptly fell ill with the fever that afflicted all newcomers. Recovered, but still weak, he took stock of affairs in the colony from his vantage point in its capital, New Orleans, and began identifying the things he needed to turn the colony around. The condition of the public hospital was one of Delachaise's greatest worries, and he scrutinized its operations at the most basic level. At the height of the fever season, he advised his employers, there were as many as eighty of the colony's precious soldiers and inhabitants lying ill in the town's hospital, where things were not as they should be. "No one takes care of this place. We must rely on the surgeons and the male nurses." The surgeon, Delachaise continued, "pays scarcely any attention to it." "He has married a rich wife. He thinks only of his pleasures."

The failure of the public hospital was not a small matter. In the 1720s, the Louisiana colony was still on the brink of failure, lacking on every count-population, economy, social stability-features that would reassure the financially pressed French government that it was worth sustaining. Its strategic importance alone secured its future. But Jacques Delachaise's own future fortunes as a senior bureaucrat rested on his ability to do more than maintain a miserable status quo. With a blend of aristocratic arrogance and bureaucratic stubbornness, he set out to turn Louisiana into a model outpost of French civility, one resting on a firm foundation of physical and mental health. A member of the bourgeoisie that had given birth to the renfermement, Delachaise understood the hôpital to be the lynchpin of a well-ordered urban center. He also knew that it served a second, critical function in the New World as well. The majority of its patients were the soldiers that Commissioner Delachaise depended on to enforce the company's trade monopoly against smuggling and black marketeering, to keep the civil peace, and to protect the colony's capital from Indian attack. His personal success turned on these men. If they spent most of their tour of duty incapacitated with fever or died in the hospital for lack of proper care, he would fail.

Delachaise believed he knew what would remedy his problem. "If you could, Gentlemen," he implored the directors of the company, "induce four good gray sisters to come and settle here and take care of the sick, it would be much better." Gray sisters-hospitalier nuns like the Filles de la Charité -would provide better care "than the male attendants, who steal the rations," Delachaise asserted. He added that he hoped that some of these gray sisters would be trained as pharmacists, because the colony's medicines "vanish as soon as they arrive." Delachaise believed that the surgeons in charge of the colony's medical care, who kept no dispensary accounts, were selling off the medicines for their own profit while the inmates of the hospital languished and died. "A good sister who will take charge of the medicines," he was sure, "will not deliver any except on receipts which will be explained."

Better health care was not the only reason that Delachaise and his employers sought the services of nursing sisters. The sisters and the institutions they operated in France catered to social problems as well as physical ills. From its earliest days, the official correspondence of Louisiana was filled with complaints about the moral and social deviance of the colonists, much of it centering on sexual relations. There was Indian concubinage at the first out post sat Mobile and Biloxi early in the eighteenth century. When French women began to arrive, official reports complained of prostitution, adultery, and polygamy. The arrival of twelve hundred forced emigrants under the Law regime exacerbated what officials perceived as a chronically disordered population. Like his bourgeois counterparts who governed the cities and towns of France and tried to impose the orderly industry and propriety they believed to be the keys to material prosperity, Commissioner Delachaise sought religious women and the institution of the hôpital to help him achieve his ends.

Delachaise first wrote to the company asking for gray sisters in 1723. In 1726 the Company of the Indies reported that, in the three years since he had made his request, they had been unable to persuade them, or any other nursing religious, to come to Louisiana. At this point, the Jesuit superior for Louisiana, Ignace de Beaubois, stepped in and proposed a community of Ursulines as an alternative. At Trois Rivières in New France, Ursulines had agreed to add nursing duties to their traditional program of education, so there was precedent. There were several possible motives for Beaubois's intercession. The Jesuit and the Ursuline orders maintained close, friendly relations. Their Reformation origins were similar, and both practiced a spirituality in which self-examination, meditation, and retreats played a significant part, but it was their shared educational mission that made them natural allies. Both considered themselves better equipped than other orders to evangelize, particularly among the non-French. The most generous construal of Beaubois's promotion of the Ursulines is that he believed their educational approach was what the colony really needed.

More likely, however, Beaubois's purposes were strategic. He had traveled to France in the summer of 1726 to mend fences with the colonial proprietors and to settle the terms for the Jesuits' service in Louisiana. Beaubois had trespassed in numerous insidious ways on the apostolic territory of the Capuchin friars, who had pastoral charge of New Orleans. The Company of the Indies did not necessarily prefer the Capuchins to the Jesuits, but it did not like troublemakers, and Beaubois had made trouble. Using his order's good relations with the Ursulines to recruit a contingent to take charge of the New Orleans hospital, he would be able to make an impressive peace offering.

In the autumn of 1726, Beaubois brokered an arrangement between a small contingent of Ursuline nuns drawn from Rouen and several other towns in northwest France. The next spring, as he awaited the nuns' arrival, Beaubois seems to have grown increasingly nervous about the reception the little band of Ursulines would receive. Though he reported enthusiastically to the civil secretary of the Company of the Indies in Paris that the nuns' arrival was "[looked forward to] like that of the Messiah," he wrote more candidly to the religious supervisor of the company. Beaubois admitted that the Capuchin friar serving as the head ecclesiastical official in New Orleans, Raphaël de Luxembourg, thought it ridiculous to bring Ursuline nuns to the colonial capital.

Beaubois's worries about the Ursulines' prospects for success were rooted in the friction between two colonial political factions that reverberated in disputes between the Jesuits and Capuchins over the division of missionary territory in the Mississippi Valley. It might have been that, as protégés of the Jesuit superior Beaubois, the Ursulines found themselves pulled into the fray. The Ursulines did, indeed, encounter difficulties in Louisiana, but their troubles did not begin and end with their association with the Jesuits. Rather, they grew from the ancient tug-of-war between religious women trying to win acceptance for their apostolate and authorities of church and state that reluctantly gave ground only when religious women offered them a solution to a problem for which there seemed no alternative.

Neither Jacques Delachaise nor Father Raphaël de Luxembourg wanted to bring Ursulines to New Orleans to educate women and girls. Like other French public officials in the 1720s, Delachaise wanted the practically oriented Filles de la Charité or similar sisters to help him turn his city into a model of bourgeois order through the agency of the hôpital géneral. His prescription for what would remedy the city's ills was not original. In Louisiana, the colonial clerics who complained that inhabitants barely discharged their annual obligation to attend Easter Mass and town fathers who decried drunkenness, gaming, fornication, and bastardy echoed their Old World counterparts in tone and substance. Although Louisiana had a notoriously bad reputation as a result of the deportation scheme that took place under John Law's administration, whether it was really substantially more disorderly than French towns is debatable. At one point in the eighteenth century, about forty thousand infants were abandoned each year in France, and in Paris the illegitimacy rate reached 20 percent. Official tolerance vanished for anything smacking of dissipation, particularly among laborers, servants, soldiers, and sailors. The more fortunate beggars, drunkards, and others who failed to meet the test of sober productivity were rounded up and placed in hôpitaux généraux; the unlucky found themselves locked up in France's dépôts de mendicité-jails for the poor.

Delachaise simply followed his French counterparts in both his assessment of the problem and the means for its resolution. The sturdy, hardworking Filles de la Charité and similar nursing orders were well suited to the task of reformation, both in France and in Louisiana. They would not only operate his hospital and keep his soldiers alive, he reasoned, but look after orphans and abandoned children and run a small reformatory for the loose women and prostitutes who endangered the colony with venereal disease and threatened to bankrupt the public purse with the burden of unsupported bastards. Unfortunately, in the 1720s the Filles de la Charité were in such high demand that they were turning down potential clients in France. There was no way to induce them to cross the Atlantic to take on the project of Louisiana.

Ursulines, on the other hand, were searching for a way to take their educational mission to the new colony. By the mid-1720s, the order and others like it were in a state of decline in comparison with their early-seventeenth-century heyday. Yet there remained a vital strain of the order's early evangelical enthusiasm, its original domestic object transformed into a zeal for colonial missionary work. Just as the early-seventeenth-century fervor of Catholic resurgence began to cool, the Jesuit Relations chronicling the dramatic missionary exploits of the Society of Jesus among the Indians of New France stirred a new generation of dévots. Indian conversion became a fresh, revitalizing interest among the pious and offered a new object for female zeal. The prospect of missionary work among the native population of New France exerted a ferocious appeal for the kind of women who, two generations earlier, would have found the original Ursuline enterprise compelling. But the New World offered these women an ambivalent reception. "The saga of women missionaries in seventeenth-century Canada," one historian observes, was "a story of female eagerness and official reticence." Bishops and civil officials on both sides of the Atlantic discouraged their missionary aspirations. The women who persevered and came to New France, in turn, found themselves struggling to succeed in a missionary field they had to define for themselves.

The first Ursuline convent in New France was founded in Quebec in 1639 by a widow named Marie Guyart, known as Marie de l'Incarnation. Her project to make good Catholic mothers of Indian girls was never more than partially successful. She was sensitive to the value the public in her homeland placed on "the progress of the Gospel" among the Indians, but she either believed or came to believe that the work of instilling and perpetuating the faith among the French who would be mothers in the New World was equally important.

In a letter to her grown son, she detailed the nuns' educational activities so that he could "reply to the rumours you say are put about that the Ursulines are useless in this country and that the Relations do not speak of their accomplishing anything." As in France, in the late 1660s the work of Marie Guyart and her Ursuline sisters was eclipsed by the growing popularity of nursing sisters. Reports from New France made much of the work of the Chanoinesses Hospitalières de Saint-Augustin, who had charge of Quebec's hospital. Marie Guyart made a case for the significance of her order's work. "Great care is taken in this country with the instruction of the French girls, and I can assure you that if there were no Ursulines they would be in continual danger for their salvation," she wrote. The threat was as much carnal as it was spiritual, she noted tartly, because some parents were foolish enough to go out and leave their young girls at home with "several men to watch over them." Girls in such circumstances were "in evident danger, and experience shows they must be put in a place of safety." Preserving female virtue and providing young women with the spiritual armor to retain it was a crucial task for the nuns, who sometimes had only a year to teach their students "reading, writing, calculating, the prayers, Christian habits, and all a girl should know."


Excerpted from masterless mistresses by EMILY CLARK Copyright © 2007 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations
List of Tables
List of Abbreviations
Prelude. Old World Origins: Female Piety and Social Imperatives in Europe

Part 1. Transplantations: The French

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