In Thanksgiving for Our Lady’s Prompt Succor: New Orleans Celebrates Shrine’s Centennial

The votive shrine’s beautiful statue of Our Lady of Prompt Succor arrived in New Orleans on Dec. 10, 1810, after Our Lady had answered the prayer of Mother St. Michel Gensoul, an Ursuline in France, with prompt succor (‘quick help’) in her distress. The shrine was dedicated on Jan. 6, 1924.

The National Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor honors Mary every day, but in a special way each January.
The National Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor honors Mary every day, but in a special way each January. (photo: Courtesy of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor)

NEW ORLEANS — A banner year begins in the Crescent City on Saturday, as the National Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor launches its “Centennial Celebration.” It was on Jan. 6, 1924, that Archbishop John Shaw dedicated this votive shrine. The celebration continues with the annual Solemnity of Our Lady of Prompt Succor Mass of Thanksgiving on Monday, an annual event on Jan. 8 for 214 years. In fact, thanks to the Ursuline Sisters, devotion to Our Lady of Prompt Succor, patroness of New Orleans and Louisiana, had already begun in the 18th century.

The shrine’s beautiful statue of Our Lady of Prompt Succor arrived in New Orleans on Dec. 10, 1810, after Our Lady had answered the prayer of Mother St. Michel Gensoul, an Ursuline in France, with prompt succor (“quick help”) in her distress.

Her cousin with the Ursulines in New Orleans who founded a school for girls there in 1727 asked Mother St. Michel to join them, but her bishop would not let her leave France unless the Pope gave permission. Because the political situation made Pius VII essentially a prisoner in the Vatican, an answer seemed unlikely.

Mother St. Michel turned to Our Lady, praying, “O most holy Virgin Mary, if you obtain a prompt and favorable answer to my letter, I promise to have you honored in New Orleans under the title of Our Lady of Prompt Succor.” She also promised to have a statue of Our Lady carved and brought to New Orleans.

Shrine Director Kaki Smith picked up the story. “She wrote to the Pope” and surprisingly got a swift answer, despite limited communications due to the political situation caused by the French Revolution. Despite the papal predicament, he was able to write back, telling Sister St. Michel, “Please go. Your mission is in the New World.” She had the statue carved in France and on Dec. 10, 1810, she arrived at the New Orleans convent.

Miraculous Intervention

Five years later, Our Lady of Prompt Succor intervened for the U.S. military during the Battle of New Orleans Jan. 7-8, 1815. With the British Army preparing to attack this major Mississippi River port, Gen. Andrew Jackson implored the residents and sisters to hurry away because he feared the British Army would pillage and abuse citizens, as they had done elsewhere. His American troops were a mixed group of soldiers, volunteers and frontiersmen inadequately equipped, badly outnumbered and facing a very large army of highly trained British troops.

When the sisters refused to abandon those under their care, on Dec. 23, 1814, Jackson implored them to pray. The sisters began all-night vigils of prayer. Ursuline history recounts: “The night of January 7 was spent in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament … our Chapel was continuously thronged with pious ladies … all weeping and praying at the foot of the beautiful statue of Our Lady of Prompt Succor … and, there, as a mother in the midst of her sorrowing children, did Mary listen to the supplications of her devout clients, and plead their cause with the heart of Her Divine Son.”

The sisters implored Our Lady of Prompt Succor to save New Orleans from British control. If the Americans won, the superior, Mother Ste. Marie Francis Olivier de Vezin, promised the Blessed Mother that a Mass of thanksgiving would be celebrated annually in memory of her swift intercession.

On Jan. 8, as Bishop Louis William DuBourg was celebrating morning Mass also for that intention, a messenger arrived at Communion time with news that the Americans won. It was a “ mini-Lepanto” moment.

Gen. Jackson wrote the bishop, calling for everyone to give thanks for “the great assistance we have received from the Ruler of all events.” Because the Ursulines were under the rule of cloister at that time, they could not attend the thanksgiving Mass, but afterward, Jackson and his entourage visited the sisters to personally thank them for their days and nights of prayer and had supper with them.

It should be known that, after the battle, in their charity, the sisters nursed and cared for the many injured British soldiers; the grateful British later wrote letters to the good sisters. On his later trips to the city, Jackson always visited the Ursulines. When president, he brought them a bust of himself, one of only three that exist.

“Mary’s quick help for a successful outcome of that battle,” Smith emphasized, “is one of the miracles that we consider one of her gifts to the city.”

Devotion Grows

As devotion to Our Lady of Prompt Succor grew, Pope Leo XIII decreed the solemn crowning of the statue of Our Lady then carried out by Archbishop Francis Janssens on Nov. 10, 1895. This was the first statue of Our Lady crowned in the United States. The crowning of Our Lady unified the city’s Catholics, made up of Sicilians, French, Irish and Germans. The Holy See also officially approved the devotion.

For the ceremony, New Orleans citizens donated their gems and gold to have crowns made for Mary’s depiction and that of the Child Jesus in her arms. Smith recounted, “And if she was going to be crowned and be a queen, they also decided that they would guild her in gold so that she was dressed as a queen as well.”

In time, when New Orleans expanded, the Ursulines had to relocate, eventually building this stone European Gothic church and shrine next to their convent and school. Since this votive shrine was completed in 1924, people have prayed before the life-size statue of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, bringing their petitions and thanksgivings. Standing approximately 6 feet tall, and carved of wood and gilded in gold, Our Lady’s statue is high in the center of the marble reredos.

When the statue arrived in 1810, Our Lady appeared “with a pink gown and a blue mantle,” explained Smith. When the statue was to be crowned, “the citizens donated their gems and gold to have crowns (one also for the Child Jesus in her arms) made for her. And if she was going to be crowned and be a queen, they decided that they would guild her in gold, so that she was dressed as a queen as well.”

Among the reredos’ other intricate filigreed Gothic carvings, two angels appear in shrines next to Our Lady. One holds a tower, a symbol of Mary as the “Tower of Strength.” The other holds a scroll, indicating Mary’s title of “Seat of Wisdom.” High reliefs of more angels and cherubs line the ornately carved side panels, while two more carved angels are shown kneeling at the foot of this shrine. Below are symbols of the Four Evangelists.

The altar used for Mass is made of wood from the partition between the sanctuary and the large chapel to the side where the sisters and students would attend Mass. The main church and sanctuary and this chapel form an “L” shape. The altar also matches the original carved wooden Communion railings. The view from this side chapel looks directly across the sanctuary and through three Gothic arches to the Sacred Heart altar, with its large statue of Jesus.

Stories in Stained Glass

Nearby, a side shrine altar carved in the style of the main altar honors St. Joseph. Above this altar is one of the many magnificent stained-glass windows in both the main shrine and the side chapel. The outside chapel presents scenes after the birth of Jesus, while the inside chapel depicts detailed scenes from Mary’s life before the birth of Jesus. Here, as everywhere, arched triptych windows frame the main scenes that are also surrounded by colorful symbols, figures and ornamentation.

National Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor stained glass
Stained glass fills the interior of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor.(Photo: National Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor)

The highly detailed biblical scenes are brought to life in very intense reds, greens and blues, all the work of master stained-glass craftsman Emil Frei Sr., who studied at the Munich Academy of Art and F.X. Zettler Glass Co., emigrated to New York and eventually settled in St. Louis. In 1898, he opened his own art glass company, which is still run by the Frei family.

In addition to familiar scenes like the Nativity and Visitation with its unusual details — like Zechariah shaking the hand of St. Joseph, and the Pietà that includes an angel rendition that displays the Veil of Veronica bearing the face of Jesus and another angel depicted holding the nails, lance and sponge from the Crucifixion — several of these traditional Bavarian style-windows present rarely depicted events.

Among these are the Presentation of Mary in the Temple of Jerusalem, where the young Blessed Mother appears before the High Priest, while her father, St. Joachim, is shown standing next to her mother, St. Anne, shown kneeling; the Birth of Mary; and God’s Prophecy of the Immaculate Conception to Adam and Eve, which includes God the Father in the left panel of the triptych, Adam and Eve in the right panel, and a center window depicting Mary crushing the head of the serpent. Another window is Mary Receives the Eucharist From John, picturing Our Lady kneeling to receive Holy Communion as angels on either side look on in reverence and awe.

The soaring window over the main entrance honors Our Lady of Prompt Succor in Glory. Above, the Holy Spirit is depicted sending down rays. To the sides are renditions of the prophet Isaiah and St. Bernard, credited with composing the Memorare. Bordering the Marian window are the coats of arms of bishops and popes who spread devotion to the Mother of God, including Pius XI, who reigned when the shrine was completed, and Archbishop Janssens, who crowned the beloved statue.

A Special Statue

For this anniversary, an earlier image of Our Lady — affectionately called the “Sweetheart” statue — has been returned to the chapel. About 12 inches tall, the plaster statue was brought to New Orleans from France and credited with miraculous, swift answers to the faithful’s prayerful petitions. What is considered a spectacular miracle happened on Good Friday 1788, during the Great New Orleans Fire that destroyed 856 of the city’s 1,100 buildings.

The superior ordered the nuns and students to leave for safety, but elderly Sister St. Anthony, clutching this small statue, climbed the stairs to the next floor. The superior followed, saw her put the statue on the windowsill facing the fire, kneel and pray, “O Lady of Prompt Succor, save us or we are lost.” The official account stated, “At that very instant the wind veered and the flames were blown back over their path of destruction and soon died out.” The convent and the rest of the city were spared. When others spoke of Our Lady’s intercession, the sisters would answer, “Oh, Our Lady is such a Sweetheart” — hence, the sweet nickname. She also became a “Sweetheart” for many servicemen during both World Wars, who laid their medals before the statue in thanksgiving for their safe return home.

During this 100th-anniversary, yearlong celebration, Our Lady appears ever ready to hear and answer — just as she has done here for nearly 300 years.