Ursuline Convent, Chapel and Academy
For Galvestonians of a certain age, the name Ursuline can mean different things. From 1847 until 1993, an order of Ursuline nuns served primarily as teachers in numerous Galveston schools in addition to their other religious duties. Ursuline also refers to the Chapel constructed in 1871 to serve the religious order and the island’s Catholic community, a place where priests from other Galveston parishes at one time conducted mass daily. For several thousand girls and young women from all over Texas, Ursuline refers to the Academy supervised by the dozens of nuns who taught there from 1847 until the last class of seniors graduated in 1968. The three entities: convent, church, and school all sat on a 10-acre site reaching from 25th to 27th Streets along Avenue N (now Ursuline Avenue). Today, the only element of this compound still intact as originally constructed is the Ursuline Cemetery where eighty-five nuns are buried.
The Ursuline Order began in Italy in the early 1500’s when Angela Merici found inspiration in a book read by her father describing the lives of the saints, especially that of Saint Ursula. Receiving a vision of a ladder stretching from earth to the sky with angels and maidens descending it singing and playing instruments, Angela took this image to be her destiny: she would create a religious order for women. However, unlike those of cloistered nunneries, Ursuline’s sisters would be involved in the public world, usually as teachers. Within a century there were Ursuline nuns throughout Western Europe and even a convent in Quebec, Canada. By the 1720’s, the Canadian order expanded and founded an Ursuline convent and school in the fledgling city of New Orleans. As yet another century passed, the newly-appointed Bishop of Texas, Right Reverend Jean Marie Odin turned to this Louisiana order to provide seven nuns to start an Ursuline convent and school in Texas’ largest city, Galveston.
On January 18, 1847, those seven Ursuline nuns came ashore from the steamship Palmetto and were welcomed by two Galvestonians, Mrs. Yacy and Mrs. Blossman who escorted them to the Yacy home for the night. The next morning for the first time, the sisters saw their future home where Bishop Odin and a few priests had started needed repairs. Sitting on the southeast corner of 27th Street and Avenue N, the two-story, wooden house with its ten rooms had once been considered “grand” when it served as a home for Judge James Love. Unfortunately, it sat abandoned for at least two years before the nuns arrived. Among the first tasks was to select the room that would be the chapel, and then Bishop Odin celebrated mass including the singing of Laudate Dominum, which would be part of every future Founders Day ceremony.
Less than a month later, Reverend Mother Arsene Blin led the sisters as they opened a school for twenty-five girls, both day-students and boarders, some Catholic, some not. Enrollment increased until finally new enrollees had to be turned away for a lack of room; meanwhile the numerous masses celebrated throughout the week consistently saw heavy attendance. Soon construction began on both a dormitory and a refectory to accommodate the growing student body, but these early successes were soon followed by some major challenges to the sisters of St. Ursula’s-by-the Sea, as the convent and academy were known.
The fall of 1847 brought the first yellow fever epidemic the nuns would face on the island, and at its height, Bishop Odin reported that ten to twelve Galvestonians died each day. The school sat empty as students stayed home, while the nuns nursed the sick as best they could and miraculously no Ursuline sisters became ill. An 1853 summertime hurricane struck the island, washing away buildings and causing several deaths, and was followed in September by an outbreak of yellow fever. After both disasters, the city turned to the Ursuline nuns for needed assistance with the convent even housing several orphans in the wake of the epidemic. January of 1854 saw the convent partially destroyed by a fire, and within the next few months at least two more fires damaged other parts of the facility. Donations and subscriptions began to arrive, and by the next year, construction began on a new brick building. Unfortunately, Galveston was visited by yet another outbreak of yellow fever, and this time not only did some of the new structure’s workmen succumb, so did three of the Ursuline nuns. Finally in October of 1855, workers completed the rebuilt convent, but the number of students at the Ursuline Academy had already declined sharply as their families expressed fears of fevers and storms. Yet another yellow fever outbreak in 1858 took the lives of one more nun and one of the boarding students, and threatened to end the Ursuline mission on the island.
With a nearly-depleted treasury, declining attendance, and on-going disagreements over religious observances among the sisters, the order seemed destined to fail on the island. At the request of Bishop Odin, Mother St. Pierre arrived from the New Orleans convent; her natural leadership and her religious spirit stood out and she was immediately elected superior, bringing new life into the community. Old discords began to resolve themselves, new curriculum adding culture and refinement drew more students, and by 1861, a new addition for the growing number of boarders was soon ready for occupancy. And then war came to Galveston Island.
With Texas’ secession from the Union and the outbreak of the American Civil War, the island found itself surrounded by several Union ships both in the bay and sailing in offshore waters as part of a blockade of all Gulf ports. In addition, a small detachment of Union soldiers rowed from one of the bayside gunboats to a wharf each morning. Marching to the U.S. Customs House on 20th Street and Post Office, these soldiers raised a U.S. flag, and then returned to their ship; at dusk, the routine was reversed. This daily parade was generally the extent of Union occupation for Galveston, though fear of attack had already driven about half of the city’s civilian population off the island. As 1863 began, General Magruder and his Confederate forces had plans to disrupt this routine by crossing Galveston Bay at Virginia Point and marching east until they occupied several blocks of the downtown area. Meanwhile a group of cotton-clad steamships (the cotton bales served as “armor”) made their way from Houston and engaged the Union gunboats north of the island. Union ships began to lob shells into the city once Confederate artillery fire from the roofs of downtown buildings and from the wharves announced the takeover by the southerners. In the dark of night as this battle commenced, the Ursuline nuns turned the newly-built dormitory and classrooms into a “hospital” and awaited the inevitable arrival of the wounded and dying. They had to do so; there was not yet a St. Mary’s Infirmary or University of Texas Medical College on the island.
Hours before the fighting commenced, General Magruder sent directives and carriages to remove the nuns, explaining to Mother St. Pierre that the buildings would become a base hospital, while she and her sisters would be safely carried away from the battlefield. Mother Superior told the carriage drivers to instead load some of the women and children who had arrived at St. Ursula’s by-the-Sea seeking sanctuary, and to take these frightened souls away. Mother St. Pierre and her fellow Ursuline nuns all elected once more to stay, just as they had months earlier when General Bankhead first ordered an evacuation for all island civilians.
As dawn neared and Union shells began to sail into the city, they fell closer and closer to the convent and school. Word came to Mother Superior to hoist a yellow flag, the flag of quarantine, as a sign that the building was a hospital. The nuns had only black and white clothing, but a frantic search found a yellow petticoat in one of the trunks of a student, and soon a soldier (possibly a captured Union soldier with a minor wound) was sent to climb to the roof and find a way to hoist the colors, or if all else failed to wave it as high as possible. Immediately the Union guns began to direct the bombardment away from Ursuline’s newly-created hospital, even as more wounded soldiers and civilians arrived. Regardless of any flag, Mother St. Pierre expressed confidence that it was the prayers given before the Holy Sacrament that led to the building’s salvation.
Among the arriving wounded was a young Union officer, Lieutenant Sherman, son and namesake of the Confederate General Sidney Sherman; the young man died in the arms of Reverend Mother St. Pierre about an hour after he arrived at the hospital. As the battle continued into the daylight hours, some of the sisters joined volunteers going into the streets to find the wounded and bring them back to the make-shift hospital. Approximately 80 soldiers were treated at the Ursuline Hospital, and reports from military officials and individual soldiers all attest to the steady resolve and kindness shown by the nuns. For their efforts to tend all civilians and soldiers brought to them--Confederate, Union, black, or white, the sisters of St. Ursula’s by-the-Sea would eventually be recognized by the U.S. Congress, and be included in the inscription identifying “Nuns of the Battlefield” on a monument in Washington, D.C.
A Texas Historical Commission marker also commemorates their work those days in January 1863, and
it is located on the block that once was home to Galveston’s Ursuline nuns.
For the convent and its school, the years of Reconstruction were challenging, with stockpiles of Confederate currency accumulated as tuition payments during the war years being virtually worthless. In addition, the Texas economy like the rest of the South had to deal with the inconsistencies of Reconstruction governments and on-going inflation. Once more, the sisters attended to the hundreds of victims who suffered through an 1867 yellow fever epidemic, a period some consider to be the worst outbreak ever faced by Galveston. Still, Ursuline Convent and Academy continued, and with the return of cotton production and the increase of shipping through Galveston’s port, the city began to revive. Thus in 1871, the Galveston-Houston Diocese under Bishop Dubois ordered the construction of an exterior chapel to serve the needs of a growing community. As 1872 came to a close, the new building entitled “The Chapel of the Presentation of Our Lady” was completed just as news came of the death of Mother St. Pierre. Her bravery and kindness during the Battle of Galveston had earned her the respect and admiration of many, including veterans—both Confederate and Union. For many years after the war, delegations of these veterans came to decorate her grave in the convent cemetery in Galveston.
The Ursuline schools continued to flourish and a wooden structure known as St. Angela’s Hall was added to the grounds in 1874. Not only did St. Angela’s provide classrooms for the children from poor Catholic families who could not afford tuition for a church-based education, it also housed exhibitions and entertainments for the neighboring community. As had occurred in earlier years, a hurricane in 1875 drove hundreds of refugees to seek protection with the Ursuline nuns. In 1882, a fire destroyed part of St. Angela’s Hall, but as they always did, the Ursuline nuns simply worked harder and did what they could to rebuild. In the case of the 1882 fire, that meant moving the remains of the building to west side of the compound. Perhaps the commitment to maintain the Ursuline institutions came from the community around them. By the 1880’s, Galveston was considered one of the wealthiest cities of the South, and by the 1890’s was home to some of the richest families of the country. Mansions lined major streets, commerce grew at breakneck speed, and the multi-ethnic population gave the city a cosmopolitan air. To send one’s daughter to board at a school in Galveston was considered socially advantageous, and few if any vacancies were listed on the Ursuline Academy rosters in those decades.
It seemed like a worthwhile investment to maintain the Ursuline presence on the island. Therefore the order’s nuns led by the Bishop engaged renowned architect Nicholas J. Clayton to design and oversee the construction of a new Ursuline Academy in 1891.
This commission would create one of the truly great buildings of Galveston Island. For many, the Clayton design is considered his masterpiece. The structure, described as High Victorian Gothic according to architectural experts, was noted for the multicolored stones and brick that band the building, especially those on the south side with its two-story arcade connecting the Ursuline Academy and the Chapel, and around many window and door openings. In addition, numerous turrets, spires, elaborate window shapes and surrounds, tiled walls, and surface designs best described as “complex” combine into an exterior almost too detailed to grasp. Inside, the interiors were spacious and illuminated by vast windows. There simply was nothing like Ursuline Academy in Galveston, perhaps not anywhere else in the country. And as the nuns prepared for the school year in September of 1900, they knew there were more students enrolled at Ursuline Academy than ever before as the girls began to arrive from far and wide to take up residence at this great institution.
Led by Mother Mary Joseph, Ursuline Convent and Academy expected the normal confusion of starting a school year and settling in the newly-arrived boarding girls to be their biggest challenges the second week of September. Instead, a hurricane was bearing down on Galveston and would in a few short hours of rain and wind completely submerge the island under several feet of water as the storm surge came ashore. Ursuline Academy, with its massive structure, provided shelter for the convent’s nuns, and for somewhere between 1000 and 1500 citizens of the city who soon sought shelter as their own homes shattered under the power of the waves or simply disappeared in ever-deepening floodwaters. Inside the first floor of Ursuline Academy, the waters would rise to nine feet, with waves that splashed onto the ceiling above. In places, the third floor roof either disappeared as winds ripped it away or collapsed at odd angles. Windows throughout the complex, gigantic many-paned structures, some of elaborate stained-glass designs, began to first bend, then blow in as winds increased and there was an explosion that sent glass shards flying. From the now-open window frames, nuns and citizens sheltering on the second floor armed themselves with ropes and waited with out-stretched arms to grab anyone floating by or struggling in the water; one nun even jumped into the water to retrieve a woman too weak to hold the rope. A pregnant woman was pulled from a trunk floating close to the building, and soon delivered a healthy son in one of the nun’s cells; two other births occurred there that night. Throughout it all, the chapel bell rang over and over, continuously for hours. At first the bell’s rope was pulled by nuns signaling to anyone floating through the debris and dangers that the church was still here and was a refuge. The rope eventually broke, but the winds were strong enough that the bell rang on its own. That bell would be preserved in a special monument close to what was the site of the original Ursuline Chapel.
Throughout it all, many credited Mother Mary Joseph with generating calm in this otherwise chaotic mass of people. She began to pray, and then decided to simply baptize every child and any willing adult, giving all the males the name Joseph and all the females the name Mary. She took a large beloved statue of Mary, “Our Lady of the Storm”, and placed it three steps down on the staircase that had connected the crowded second floor with what had become an underwater first floor. Then at the top of the staircase she posted nuns to lead prayers for an end to the ever-encroaching flood water. It seemed to work, for soon the water stopped its rise and began to slowly withdraw. Two of the nuns had last been seen wading to the outside kitchen for supplies, and hours later they had not returned; their demise was assumed. It would be the next day before the two appeared again; they spent most of the night floating in a large wooden bread tray. In the Ursuline Convent, the only room that had escaped damage was the cell in which the Blessed Sacrament had been sheltered.
The world that awaited the hundreds who had survived on the second floor of Ursuline was like nothing seen before. In a city that two days before was home to 37,000 people, there were now at least 6000 corpses. Entire neighborhoods had simply been wiped clean and the remains of what had been homes and businesses were now mounded together all across the island. In the first three weeks after the storm, 219 corpses were located on the land around the Ursuline compound; the nuns knew there were more, because the remaining piles of debris exuded a “pestilential odor”. There was even one of the funeral pyres constructed on the church grounds as part of the massive effort to tend to the dead. All the Catholic churches on the island worked to assist one another in addressing the overwhelming needs of the community; the Ursuline nuns noted especially the help and kindness they received from Father Kirwin. They knew the Convent and Chapel would continue; the question after the 1900 storm was the future of the Ursuline Academy. Within a month, the fate of this changed world began to take shape. While the storm still raged, a letter was on its way to Mother Mary Joseph from the offices of the Pope telling her that she was to attend a special meeting in Rome the next month and work with other Ursuline leaders to unite all their Houses into a single corps worldwide. She would of course attend, despite her protests that she could perhaps do more addressing the needs of her overwhelmed island order.