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Hidden French Quarter treasures

While hanging out in the French Quarter in the days leading up to the Sugar Bowl, Arkansas fans should make it a point to visit a couple of historic gems — the Old Ursuline Convent and the Old U.S. Mint.

The Old Ursuline Convent is the oldest building in the Mississippi River Valley. It’s amazing, though, how few people find the 1752 complex at 1100 Chartres St. It’s the best surviving example of the French colonial period in the country, and it can be toured at a cost of just $5 for adults, $4 for seniors and $3 for students.

The convent was one of those rare survivors of the fires that otherwise ravaged the French Quarter throughout the 1700s.

The Old U.S. Mint at 400 Esplanade Ave., which is now part of the Louisiana State Museum system, is the only building in the country to have served as both a U.S. and Confederate mint. It was built in 1835. President Andrew Jackson believed the establishment of a mint in New Orleans would help finance development of the western frontier.

If you love history, both facilities are well worth a visit.

The Old Ursuline Convent now houses the archives for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. You’ll enter through a gatehouse on Chartres Street and then walk through a formal garden. Entering the main building, you’ll immediately notice the many oil paintings of past archbishops and bishops. There also are bronze busts and religious statues.

The building has served at one time or another as a convent, an orphanage, a hospital and even a residence hall for bishops. The Ursulines, or Sisters of Ursula, were the first women’s religious order to come to New Orleans. The Ursulines immediately began ministering to the needs of the poor and through the years founded asylums, orphanages and schools.

Here’s how the website describes it: “The sisters arrived in the mudhole that was New Orleans in 1727 after a journey that nearly saw them lost at sea or to pirates or disease. Once in town, the Ursulines provided the first decent medical care (saving countless lives) and later founded the first school and orphanage for girls.

“They also helped raise girls shipped over from France as marriage material for local men, teaching the girls everything from languages to homemaking of the most exacting sort; laying the foundation for countless local families in the process.

“The convent dates from 1752 and is the only remaining building from the French colonial period in the United States. … The convent now functions as an archive for the Archdiocese of New Orleans with documents dating back to 1718. The sisters moved uptown in 1824, where they remain today.

“St. Mary’s Church, adjoining the convent, was added in 1845. The original convent, school and gardens covered several French Quarter blocks. The formal gardens, church and first floor of the old convent are open for guided tours. Unfortunately, the tours can be rather disappointing affairs; docents’ histories ramble all over the place, rarely painting the full, thrilling picture of these extraordinary ladies to whom New Orleans owes so much.”

On my last visit there, I found the docent who showed me around the church to be quite knowledgeable.

The order’s founder, Angela Merici, was born in Desenzano, Italy, in 1474. In 1531, she began assembling young women for regular meetings. The Company of Saint Ursula was founded in 1535, Angela was elected Mother For Life in 1538, and Pope Paul III formally approved the company in 1544.

The Ursuline Academy in New Orleans was founded in 1727 by 12 Ursuline nuns from France. It moved to the Chartres Street location in 1734 and then to a Dauphine Street location on the banks of the Mississippi River in 1824. The academy, which moved to its current location on State Street in 1912, is both the oldest continuously operating school for girls in the country and the oldest Catholic school in the country.

In addition to providing the first center of socal welfare in the Lower Mississippi Valley, the first boarding school in Louisiana and the first music school in New Orleans, the Ursulines also say they provided this country its first female pharmacist, the first woman to contribute a book of literary merit, the first convent, the first free school, the first women’s retreat center, the first classes for female black slaves, the first classes for freed black women and the first classes for Native American women.

As for the Old U.S. Mint, architect William Strickland designed the building in the Greek Revival style. Minting began in 1838. State authorities seized the property in 1861 and transferred it to the Confederate Army. Confederate currency was minted there, and troops were housed in the building during the Civil War. The minting of U.S. currency resumed in 1879. It was the only mint in the South to reopen following the war.

Minting operations in New Orleans ceased in 1909. The building was transferred to the state in 1966 and opened as a state museum in 1981.

In an article for the March 2003 edition of Numismatist, Greg Lambousy described the facility’s history since 1879 this way: “A series of political struggles ensued for the next 30 years. Many thought the New Orleans mint was superfluous and existed merely as a form of political patronage for Louisiana legislators. Given the facility’s aging machinery and competition from the Denver and San Francisco Mints, it became increasingly more difficult to justify the cost of operations in New Orleans. By June 1911, after production had been halted for two years, machinery began to be dismantled and shipped to the Philadelphia Mint.

“In 1922, a supervising architect for the Treasury Department issued a report describing the general decay into which the building and its remaining machinery had fallen: ‘The attic and building generally contain old decayed tanks, masonry furnaces, old iron, piles of paper, mud and dead pipe and gas lines and flues, etc. … Surface dirt and cobwebs exist practically throughout the building, the accumulation of years, and there is no janitor force employed. The rear lot is filthy with trash, cans, old abandoned machinery, decayed and falling wooden and sheet metal sheds and shacks and an old brick chimney.’

“At this time, the assay department still operated on the third floor. A naval recruiting station and a Veterans Bureau dispensary and dental clinic operated in other parts of the building. The architect recommended in his report that the assay department relocate to the New Orleans Customhouse, where it could share the use of a newly built bullion vault.

“His advice finally was taken in 1931 when the mint building was converted into a federal prison. In 1943, the prison closed. The building functioned as a Coast Guard receiving station until the middle 1960s, when it was transferred from the federal government to the state of Louisiana and placed under the stewardship of the Louisiana State Museum Board. … Today, the New Orleans Mint building exhibits few of the problems that plagued it during its tumultuous decades of service. It stands as a testament to man’s ingenuity — and frailty.”

Like the Old Ursuline Convent, the Old U.S. Mint is off the beaten path for most tourists and is rarely crowded. Pay it a visit when you’re in New Orleans.

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