Masterless Mistresses

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

EMILY CLARK
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9780807839034_clark
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  • Book Info
    Masterless Mistresses
    Book Description:

    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 Mistressesexposes the limits of the republican model of national unity.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0106-9
    Subjects: History, Religion, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. xi-xi)
  4. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xii-xii)
  5. List of Tables
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  7. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-6)

    In 1596, a handful of women in southern France organized under the rule of the Company of Saint Ursula to teach Christian doctrine. A century later, more than three hundred Ursuline schools throughout France taught girls reading, writing, and arithmetic along with the elements of the Catholic faith. In 1727, twelve Ursuline nuns arrived in New Orleans, where they founded an enterprise that educated women and girls of European, Indian, and African descent, enslaved and free, throughout Louisiana’s colonial period. After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the nuns remained in the city and continued their apostolate. In the first instance,...

  8. prelude. OLD WORLD ORIGINS: FEMALE PIETY AND SOCIAL IMPERATIVES IN EUROPE
    (pp. 7-34)

    In August 1727, twelve French Ursuline nuns disembarked the ship that had carried them across a treacherous Atlantic, dodging pirates and sandbars to land them safely on the southern coast of the colony of Louisiana. Driven by missionary enthusiasm, they had made the voyage to establish a convent in the capital of the French colony of Louisiana. Life aboard the oceangoingGirondehad been uncomfortable, but now the women encountered the novel adversities and dangers of colonial life. Shallow, roughhewn pirogues waited to carry them from the mouth of the Mississippi to the settlement of New Orleans, small boats dwarfed...

  9. PART 1. TRANSPLANTATIONS:: THE FRENCH LEGACY
    • [part one Introduction]
      (pp. 35-40)

      France established Louisiana as a colony in 1699 to protect its strategic interests, securing a crescent of territory reaching from Quebec down the Mississippi Valley to the Gulf of Mexico. Louisiana acted as a wedge between the English to the east and the Spanish to the west and kept France among the mainland players in the game of Atlantic world exploitation. Despite the boldness of its geographic claim, however, France was a reluctant colonizer whose geopolitical passions and financial priorities lay elsewhere. Louis XIV, who reigned from 1661 to 1715, sought glory on the European continent through the time-tested but...

    • chapter 1 MAKING A MATCH: THE URSULINE MISSION TO NEW ORLEANS
      (pp. 41-58)

      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...

    • chapter 2 THE ORDER WAS WELL KEPT: CREATING AND SUSTAINING COMMUNITY
      (pp. 59-82)

      On July 17, 1734, the inhabitants of New Orleans were treated to a festive spectacle. A procession of nuns, pious women, young girls, clergy, and inhabitants walked ceremoniously from the Ursulines’ temporary quarters at one end of town to the new convent that had been built for the nuns at the opposite edge of the settlement (see Figure 6). The streets were a quagmire after three days of unremitting rain. Dozens of little girls, pent up all day waiting for the skies to clear, were restless. They broke into spirited song when the procession finally marched forth at five o’clock...

    • chapter 3 INNER SPIRIT, OUTWARD SIGNS: FRENCH FEMININE PIETY AT WORK
      (pp. 83-122)

      Among the dozens of marriage contracts scattered throughout the proceedings of the Louisiana Superior Council are two that represent very different kinds of families, one prominent and prosperous, the other humble and ordinary. They nonetheless share one striking feature: they testify to the unusual literacy of New Orleans women. Jean LaBranche took a bride in 1737. A simple farmer with a small habitation upriver from New Orleans, he stood before a notary with a single friend at his side and agreed to share his modest property with his future wife, an orphaned minor named Suzanne Marchand. LaBranche, the notary recorded,...

  10. PART 2. TRANSFORMATIONS:: OLD WORLD TO NEW
    • [part two Introduction]
      (pp. 123-126)

      The Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) brought an end to French control in Louisiana. By the terms of the secret Treaty of Fontainebleau, executed in November 1762, LouisXV transferred New Orleans and the Louisiana Territory west of the Mississippi to his Bourbon cousin, Charles III of Spain. The cession of Louisiana to Spain did not produce an abrupt political and cultural transition. The first Spanish governor, Antonio de Ulloa, did not take possession of the colony until 1767. He was forced from Louisiana late in 1768 by a rebellious cabal of French planters. The ringleaders of the revolt were deeply...

    • chapter 4 DIFFERENCES OF NATION AND MENTALITY: TESTING THE BONDS OF COMMUNITY
      (pp. 127-160)

      Pedro Velez, a priest serving in Spanish Florida, took up his pen in the spring of 1786 to offer words of support to his beleaguered colleague in New Orleans, Antonio de Sedella. Father Antonio found himself in the middle of a power struggle at the Ursuline convent when three French nuns arrived, without proper authorization, to join the community. “My most beloved Father Antonio,” he began, I “am ready to serve you in all things and wishing that the holy nuns do not give you too much to do with the coming of the three Frenchwomen.” He continued, with what...

    • chapter 5 IT IS THE CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY: THE URSULINE ENCOUNTER WITH SLAVERY
      (pp. 161-194)

      When missionaries left France for Louisiana, they took everything and everyone they thought they might need with them. The young Ursuline novice, Marie Madeleine Hachard, reported to her father that the Jesuits who crossed the Atlantic with the nuns on theGirondein 1727 brought along a carpenter, a locksmith, and several other workmen to help them build and maintain their physical facilities. “As for us,” she continued, “please do not be scandalized, it is the custom of the country: we are taking a Moor to wait on us.”¹ Servants were not unusual in ancien régime French convents. Marie was...

    • chapter 6 THE WAGES OF ZEAL: CHANGE AND THE CONVENT ECONOMY
      (pp. 195-220)

      Nine women gathered in New Orleans on an October night in 1734 and decided together to negotiate the purchase of a plantation worth twenty-five hundred livres by offering the owner three hundred livres in cash, three hundred livres toward his debt with the colonial proprietors, two enslaved laborers worth one thousand livres, and two years of free tuition and board for the girl of his choice at their school.¹ Acquiring property in exchange for cash and enslaved laborers made these women typical of enterprising planters who invested their cash and slave capital to increase their wealth. Offering to close the...

  11. PART 3. CONFRONTATIONS:: A CATHOLIC COLONY MEETS A PROTESTANT NATION
    • [part three Introduction]
      (pp. 221-224)

      In the first two decades of the nineteenth century, the relative equilibrium and stability that late colonial New Orleans had achieved was broken by a series of shocks and shifts in its economy and demography. Sugarcane cultivation became suddenly profitable, and sugar plantations manned by large slave labor forces proliferated, pushing lower Louisiana firmly into the ranks of slave societies. The colony was secretly retroceded to France in 1800, raising both hopes and fears among the inhabitants of New Orleans. The largely French-speaking population had never been fully reconciled to Spanish rule, yet the French republic that emerged from a...

    • chapter 7 THE REPUBLIC ENCOUNTERS THE NUN
      (pp. 225-257)

      Benjamin Henry Latrobe was convinced that Catholicism was but a shadow of its former self when he visited New Orleans in the late 1810s. “The Catholic religion formerly was the only one permitted, and was carried on with all the pomp and ceremony of a Spanish establishment,” he wrote in 1819. “The host was carried to the sick in great parade, and all those whom it encountered knelt devoutly till it had passed. All that is now over.” But was it? By chance Latrobe encountered two public funeral processions that year, and both seemed quite replete with pomp and ceremony....

    • epilogue. A WOMAN OF MASCULINE APPEARANCE AND CHARACTER: ANTEBELLUM ANTI-CATHOLICISM
      (pp. 258-264)

      Charlestown, Massachusetts, on an August night in 1834 was the setting for one of the most spectacular acts of mass violence against a group of women in American history. Before an audience of as many as two thousand spectators, a mob of sixty men attacked and burned down the town’s Ursuline convent and school. The episode traditionally serves as the opening scene in the historical narrative of antebellum anti-Catholicism, setting the stage for a class-based, economic explanation for the eruption of the Nativist and Know-Nothing movements that jostled with abolitionism to raise the temperature of America’s political culture in the...

  12. APPENDIX 1. CONVENT POPULATION, 1727–1803
    (pp. 265-274)
  13. APPENDIX 2. URSULINE SLAVE FAMILIES
    (pp. 275-280)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 281-287)