New Orleans — Last week, New Orleanians gathered at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor for a Mass of Thanksgiving commemorating a pivotal moment in the history of the city and the country — Andrew Jackson’s 1815 victory over the British in the storied Battle of New Orleans.
On the eve of that conflict, 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.
An annual Mass of Thanksgiving has been held Jan. 8 ever since.
Now, however, the shrine itself is locked in a battle: With the elements, termites and age. The Ursuline nuns, who are stewards of the historic building located on Ursuline Academy’s Uptown campus, face the challenge of coming up with the money to deal with a leaking roof and the renovation of the shrine’s entrance to make it safer and more accessible.
For Sister Carla Dolce, prioress, the issue isn’t simply one of money and mortar. It’s about preserving a place that is deeply important to people.
“Our eyes are not on our history … Our eyes and our hearts are fixed on the faithful,’’ Dolce said. “For the faithful person who is hopeless, we want them to have a place where they will find hope. For the faithful person who is distressed, we want them to have a place where they will find comfort. For the faithful person in circumstances that are unsustainable, we want them to know that miracles and favors are possible.’’
On a rainy afternoon two days after the annual thanksgiving Mass, the interior of the shrine was dim. The occasional soft plink of water hitting the floor punctuated the deep stillness. A woman sat quietly in a pew, facing the gilded statue of Mary and the infant Jesus that first came to the Ursulines of New Orleans in 1810. It was brought by Mother St. Michel Gensoul, who promised to have it carved if she received a favorable and prompt answer to her prayer to be allowed to come help the struggling Ursuline sisters in Louisiana.
Our Lady of Prompt Succor has been a part of New Orleans ever since.
Sister Donna Hyndman walked quietly through the shrine Thursday, pointing out areas where leaking water can pool during heavy rainfall — in the sacristy and the working sacristy. The floor was damp in a few areas, although Hyndman said the leaking was far worse during Hurricane Isaac’s torrential rains.
The sisters knew that there were problems with the building, which was consecrated in 1928, even before Isaac. Dolce ticked off the hurricanes: Katrina, Gustav, Isaac.
“It’s like we’ve been battered,’’ she said.
Some patching has been done, and one area has been water-proofed. But Dolce said it has become clear that the slate roof needs more than repairs. It needs to be replaced, a project that will cost $600,000 to $800,000.
The nuns also are concerned about the safety of the shrine’s entrance. Subsidence has taken a toll causing uneven areas. While a railing was installed on the stairs, there is only one, and lights shine into visitors’ eyes as they depart, making it harder to negotiate the stairs.
The architectural firm of Koch & Wilson has drawn up plans to make needed changes, but that, too, will be a large expense. The nuns also want to establish an endowment fund to ensure that the shrine will be kept in good repair going forward.
Their $2 million capital drive is for urgent needs, Dolce stresses, and not for adornment.
The shrine is a locus of devotion that draws people from all across the country. Dolce said she receives mail from all corners of the United States from people who venerate Our Lady of Prompt Succor, who was named the patron saint not only of New Orleans but of Louisiana in 1928.
The shrine, which has exceptional acoustics, is used for concerts and by the students of Ursuline Academy. A young student at the school was the one who noticed an image on a pillar last spring that resembled the thorn-crowned face of a suffering Christ. That image, which Dolce says is a shadow created by a flood light filtered through a chandelier, drew 1,500 people to the shrine last year during Holy Week.
That response convinced the Ursulines that the shrine needed to be kept open daily, instead of only opening its doors for Mass or by appointment. But that meant more costs — hiring and paying a security guard.
Mass is celebrated at the shrine every day, and many local people come regularly. The Peace Prayers, a group that is praying for the cessation of violence in the city, comes once a month. Another group comes every Tuesday to pray the rosary.
Others come on their own as does Maureen Poche, an Ursuline Academy alumna who comes every day with her husband and her mother, who is one of the oldest living Ursuline alumna.
“The shrine is a very special and holy place that brings comfort and peace to my faith and life,’’ Poche said.
For Dolce, the dilemma is finding a way to make people understand that the shrine isn’t just a building but a place where people can be changed and can, in turn, change the world.
“This building must be saved,’’ she said. “Not because of what it is, but because of what happens inside.’’
Gifts to the shrine can be sent to the Ursuline Sisters in New Orleans at 2734 Nashville Ave., New Orleans, LA 70115.