All the talk of the city's tricentennial got me wondering: What is the oldest building in New Orleans?
It should come as no surprise that the oldest surviving structure in the city is connected to the Ursuline nuns, who arrived in New Orleans from France just nine years after the city was founded. The early mission of the 16 sisters who came here in 1727 was to minister to sick people and educate young women in the colony. Historians call the Old Ursuline Convent, located at Chartres Street and Ursulines Avenue in the French Quarter, the oldest building in the city.
The first Ursuline convent was constructed on Chartres Street in 1732. In 1745, plans for the present building were drafted and it was completed in about 1752, making it the oldest surviving building in the Mississippi River Valley. Many other structures from that time were destroyed in a fire on Good Friday 1788 or a second fire in 1794. The National Parks Service designated the convent a National Historic Landmark in 1960, calling it "the finest surviving example of French Colonial public architecture in the country, Louis XV in style, formal and symmetrical, with restrained ornament."
The nuns remained there until 1824, operating an orphanage and school for girls. The school, which has been located Uptown since 1912, is the oldest continuously operating school for girls and the oldest Catholic school in the United States.
In the 1830s, the convent on Chartres Street served as a temporary meeting place for both the state Legislature and the state Supreme Court. For much of the 19th century, it also was the official residence of the city's archbishops. Later, it housed an elementary school and St. Mary's Catholic Church, which served a large number of Italians living in the French Quarter at the turn of the 20th century. In 2004, the church and ground floor of the convent were reconfigured as the Catholic Cultural Heritage Center of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, hosting exhibits about church history. Currently on display is an exhibit marking the city's tricentennial: "The Church in the Crescent: Three Hundred Years of Catholicism in New Orleans."