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Chapter 13

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
New Orleans:
The Place and the People

by
Grace King

published by The Macmillan Company
New York, 1926

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 15
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

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Cross in the St. Louis Coloured Cemetery.a

p332 Chapter XIV
The Convent of the Holy Family

It epitomizes a great section of the city's past, this Convent of the Holy Family. And in no other place of the city do the heart and the mind seem to be working together so reverently to spell from its past indications for its future. And, it would seem, in no other place to the historian, sociologist, or may we simply say humanitarian, does the future appear, not so bright, not so purely hopeful, but so providentially directed as in this institution.

It was on New Year's day, 1888, that the news spread through the community that the Mother Superior of the Coloured Convent of the Holy Family was dead. It was an occasion for the inquisitive to satisfy curiosity, as well as for the friends and well-wishers of the p333convent to pay the respect of a call; for those of the Catholic faith to do more.

The body had not yet been transported to the chapel. She lay on the cot on which she had died a few hours before. Can one ever forget the sight? So small, so shrunken, so withered, such a mummy of a human figure, with a face, under the glitter of the burning candles, so yellow, wrinkled, sunken, so devitalized, so dehumanized, of all the elements of earthly passions. All around the bed were kneeling figures from the street, from the market, servants, beggars, sisters, orphans, and white ladies, the latter predominating, not by their number but by the elegance and distinction they cast over the assemblage. It was the time not opportunity of all others to ask who was she, this Mother Juliette — and what is this Convent of the Holy Family?


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During the ancien régime in Louisiana, the pure-blooded African was never called coloured, but always negro. The gens de couleur, coloured people, were a class apart, separated from and superior to the negroes, ennobled, were it by only one drop of white blood in their veins. The caste seems to have existed from the first introduction of slaves. To the whites, all Africans who were not of pure blood were gens de couleur. Among themselves, however, there were jealous and fiercely guarded distinctions; mulattoes, quadroons, octoroons, griffes, each term meaning one more generation's elevation, one degree's further transfiguration in the standard of racial perfection; white blood. It was not a day of advanced science or morality in any part of the European world, and it must be remembered that New Orleans was, until recent years, p334a part of the European world, not of the American. Crudely put, to the black Christian, God was a white man, the devil black; the Virgin Mary, the Saviour, the saints and angels, all belonged to the race of the master and mistress; white, divinized; black, diabolized. Is it necessary to follow, except in imagination, the infinite hope, the infinite struggle, contained in the inference?

From the first appearance of gens de couleur in the colony, dates the class, gens de couleur libres. By the census of 1788, their number amounted to fifteen hundred, and in the same year their aspirations began to be noticed. An excessive attention to dress, on the part of a mulattress or quadroon, was considered, according to an ordinance of Governor Miro, "an evidence of misconduct, which made her liable to punishment." A woman owing to the class was forbidden to wear jewels and plumes, and ordered to cover her hair with a kerchief, called by the Creoles a "tignon." They were also forbidden to have nightly assemblies.

These gens de couleur represent the first crest of the waves as the tide bears them in to curl rippling over the beach at our feet; but the eye involuntarily looks p335further out, to the expanse beyond, the great black, mysterious mass, the race, out of which the tide comes to us. It is at first sight but a black, mysterious mass of brute labour, brought in shiploads, by brute capital, so to speak; the huddling, reeking, diseased, desperate catchings of a naked black humanity, without a filament of the clothing, language, or religion of the white humanity above them. Out of the inchoate blackness individual experience alone could make assortment and classification; features, expression, size, and the doctor's certificate were the quotable values at first, until Banbaras, Congoes, and smaller tribes became known, and figured on change. The damaged lots, the crippled and infirm, were sold for a trifle, and these bargains were eagerly seized upon by the poorer classes, so that a poor man's slave was not the mere term of social reproach which it is supposed to be.

The negroes made their own segregations on the plantations. They are described as singing in unison in the fields; incoherent, unintelligible words, in one recurring, monotonous, short strain of harmony, eddying around a minor chord, as they may in fact be heard in any field or street gang to‑day. In the winter, when they were clad in their long capots of blanket, with the hood drawn over the head, they looked like a monastery of monks in the field; their shoes, called "quantiers," were pieces of raw-hide, cut so as to lace comfortably over foot and ankle.

These were the first cargoes, the African bruts, as they were called, going through their first rudiments of religion, language, and civilized training. Le Page du Pratz gives interesting information as to the proper management of them in this stage. The whites' fear p336of insurrection, prevented it; every plantation was a camp; the discipline maintained was military, and military as it was understood and practised at that day. The one serious uprising of slaves in the history of the state took place when this patriarchal, despotic system had given place to the easy-going American regime. The evolution of these barbarians into skilled labourers and Christian men and women was miraculously rapid; a generation sufficing to overleap centuries of normal development, to differentiate succeeding brut arrivals in the colony from one another by degrees of superiority and progress, mentally and physically, which can only be tabulated by using, as the negroes themselves did, shades of colour as expressions of measurement. The minute paternalism of the p337French and Spanish domestic systems was peculiarly favourable to such development; the harmonious results from it can still be traced in the families of Spanish and French coloured Creoles; they themselves base aristocratic pretensions upon their French and Spanish antecedents, and at the time were the first to despise and contemn the laxer regime of the American domestic service.


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"Une bonne vieille gardienne."

One of their field songs which they sang in the early part of the century commemorates the feeling. D'Artaguette was a royal comptroller and commandant at Mobile in the time of Bienville:—

"Di temps Missié d'Artaguette,

Hé! Ho! Hé!

C'était, c'était bon temps!

Yé té menin monde à la baguette,

Hé! Ho! Hé!

Pas Nègres, pas rubans,

Pas diamants

Pour dochans,

Hé! Ho! Hé!"

("In the time of Monsieur d'Artaguette, it was, it was a good time! The world was led with a stick. No negroes, no ribbons, no diamonds for [dochansdes gens] common people.")

They improvised their songs as they went along, as children do; picking up any little circumstance in the life about them, and setting it afloat on the rill of music that seemed to be ever running through the virgin forest of their brain. And their language, known only through the ear, became itself a fluent doggerel of harmony; the soft French and Spanish words, with the consonants filtered out by the thick, moist, sensitive lips, falling in vowel cadences, link upon link, hour after p338hour, through the longest day's hardest task. Their songs, their music, their patois, still remain to soothe children to sleep; to lighten the burdensome hour, and to fill many a lazy one; and how little could it all be spared from the life of the place! And in fact, how much of the noted events of the old life of the place do the songs preserve for us; Master Cayetane, who came from la Havane to Congo square with a circus (a dozen stanzas of wonders); the battle of New Orleans; the fine balls, the names of masters and mistresses and police officers; and always the biting sarcasms about the free quadroons and the mulattoes whom they called "mules"; the rogueries of this scamp, the airs and graces of that one, and a whole répertoire of garbled versions of love and drinking-songs picked up from the masters' table, as now they pick up politics and business gossip. Under the ancien régime, it was a favourite after-dinner entertainment to have the slaves come in and sing, reward them with glasses of wine and silver pieces. Louis Philippe (that ever glorious and appropriate Louisiana memory) was thus entertained. It seems almost impossible for a true child of New Orleans to speak without emotion of the Creole songs, they run such a gamut of local sentiment and love, from the past to the present. And as for the Creole music, it is quite permissible to say it in New Orleans, that no one has ever known the full poetry and inspiration of the dance who has not danced to the original music of a Macarty or a Basile Barès. And it is a pleasure to own the conviction, whether it can be maintained or not, that America will one day do homage for music of a fine and original type, to some representative of Louisiana's coloured population.b

p339 No relation of the city in the first quarter of the century is complete without Elizabeth, or "Zabet Philosophe", who was as much as a part of the vieux carré as the Cabildo was. She always maintained her age at the current standard of a hundred. She was born in the house of the widow of an officer who had served under Bienville; and, a pet of her mistress, had been freed by will, and since then had made her living as hairdresser to the aristocratic ladies in the church, her last patron being Madame Laussat. No Frenchman in the community suffered more than she did when the French flag was lowered to the American. She wept bitterly. Being told that the new government had proclaimed that all white men were free and equal, she ceased to be a menial, and took to selling pralines on the steps of the cathedral, or under the porch of the Cabildo, where she could see her friends, the judges and lawyers, as they passed on their way to court; and they seldom failed to loiter around her tray to provoke from her the shrewd comments, piquante stories and picturesque tales which won her the surname of Philosophe. She could neither read nor write, but she spoke pure, elegant French, as the court of the Grand Monarque did, by ear, and to her blue-blooded patrons she used her best language and all the high-flown courtesy of the old regime, and was profuse in well-set phrases of thanks when their silver pieces fell in her tray; common customers she treated with careless indifference. When court and cathedral closed, she would take up her place in the Place d'Armes, and pass the evening promenaders in review, recalling aloud this about their parents and grandparents, reminding them of one story and another, complimenting the ladies and petting the p340children of her old people, as she called them. General Jackson, in 1815, shook hands with her and gave her a dollar. She was very pious at that time, but tradition hinted that she had not been pre-eminently so when she was young; to be reminded of this, however, only called a good-natured laugh to her face. "Why not? Pleasure and balls when one is young, church and prayer when one is old; that's my philosophy."

The great holiday place for the slaves in those days was Congo square, then well outside the city limits. People are yet living who remember what a gala day Sunday was to the negroes, and with what keen anticipations they looked forward to it. On a bright afternoon they would gather in their gay, picturesque finery, by hundreds, even thousands, under the shade of the sycamores, to dance the Bamboula or the Calinda; the music of their Creole songs tuned by the beating of the tam-tam. "Dansez Calinda! Badoum! Badoum!" the children, dancing too on the outskirts, adding their screams and romping to the chorus and movement. A bazaar of refreshments filled the sidewalks around; lemonade, ginger beer, pies, and the ginger cakes called "estomac mulattre," set out on deal tables, screened with cotton awnings, whose variegated streamers danced also in the breeze. White people would promenade by to look at the scene, and the young gentlemen from the College of Orleans, on their way to the theatre, always stopped a moment to see the negroes dance "Congo." At nightfall the frolic ceased, the dispersed revellers singing on their way home to another week of slavery and labour: "Bonsoir, dansé, Soleil, couché!"

A word, "Voudou," changes the gay, careless Sunday scene into its diabolic counterpart, a witches' sabbat, the p341evening to midnight, the open square to hidden obscure corners, the dancers to bacchanals; the gay, frank music to a weird chanting, subtly imitative of the yearning sighing of the wind that precedes the tropical storm; rising and swelling to the full explosion of the tempest. Among the African slaves, under any applications or assumptions of Christianity, there was always Voudou superstition, lying dormant, with their past, but in the early days of slavery there was little chance or opportunity to practise the rites of Voudouism, as they were called. Their formal introduction in the city can be plausibly traced to the immigrant St. Domingo slaves. The accessories and ceremonies followed the description given of Voudou meetings in the West Indian Islands. There was the same secrecy of place and meeting, the altar, serpent, and the official king and queen; the latter with much profusion of red in her dress, the oath to the serpent; a string of barbarous epithets and penalties, the suppliants to the serpent coming up, one by one, with their prayers, always and ever for love or revenge, the king with his hand on the serpent, receiving from it the trembling of the body which he communicates to the queen, and which she passes on to all in the room; the trembling increasing to movement; the movement, to contortions of the body, convulsions, frenzy, ecstacies, the queen ever leading; the low humming song rising louder and louder; the dancers whirling around, faster and faster, screaming, waving their red handkerchiefs, tearing off their garments, biting their flesh, falling down delirious, exhausted, pell mell, blind, inebriated, in the hot dense darkness; — when the sheer lassitude of consciousness returns with daylight, retaining but one thing firmly p342fixed in their minds, the date of the next meeting. An attempt of recent years to revive the annual Voudou celebrations, on St. John's Eve, with nothing of the old rites preserved but the dance, has been rigidly suppressed by the police authorities. The last Voudou queen, dead within the decade, was still an object of popular terror and superstition, and there are yet secret dispensers in the city, of Voudou magic; the black and white pepper, chicken feathers and minute bone combinations that still are used to charm love or send sure revenge of death; and there is still more belief in Voudouism among ignorant blacks and whites than one likes to confess.

Besides the white and slave immigrations from the West Indian Islands, there was a large influx of free gens de couleur into the city, a class of population whose increase by immigration had been sternly legislated against. Flying, however, with the whites from massacre and ruin, humanitarian sentiments induced the authorities to open the city gates to them, and the entered by the thousands. Like the white émigrés, they brought in the customs and manners of a softer climate, a more luxurious society, and a different civilization. In comparison with the free coloured people of New Orleans, they represented a distinct variety, a variety which their numbers made important, and for a time decisive in its influence on the home of their adoption.

The very thought of Miro's regulations seems absurd, as we hear of them in their boxes at the Orleans theatre, rivalling the white ladies in the tier below them, with their diamonds, Parisian head-dresses, and elegant toilets; and of the tropical splendour with which they shone at their weekly balls. These were the celebrated p343quadroon balls, that divided the nights of the week with the balls given to the white ladies, where none but white men were allowed, and where strange gentlemen were always taken, as to the amusement par excellence in the city. Robin, in 1804, remarked slily, as we have seen, that the gentlemen of New Orleans society were fond of seeking distractions elsewhere than in their own sphere, so that the brilliancy of their balls was much diminished by the number of ladies condemned to be wall-flowers. And the travellers after him, with the licensed indiscretion of travellers, write admiringly of the piquante fascinations of these entertainments. The Duke of Saxe-Weimar confesses himself not indifferent to the tempting contrast offered by p344the two balls only a few blocks apart, and he constantly notes in his Journal how he, in the interests of science or amusement, flitted between them. He writes, that the quadroon women who frequented these balls appeared almost white and that from their skins no one would detect their origin; they dressed well and gracefully, conducted themselves with perfect propriety and modesty, and were all the time under the eyes of their mothers. Some of them possessed handsome fortunes, but their position in the community was most humiliating. They regarded negroes and mulattoes with unmixed contempt. Of a quadroon masquerade at the Théâtre St. Philippe, that he left a white soirée to visit, the Duke says: "Several of them" (the quadroon ladies) "addressed me and coquetted with me in the most subtle and amusing manner." To an English traveller, the quadroon women were "the most beautiful he had ever seen, resembling the higher order of women among the high class Hindoos: lovely constitutions, full, dark, liquid eyes, lips of coral, teeth of pearl, sylph-like features, and such beautifully rounded limbs and exquisite gait and manners that they might furnish models for a Venus or a Hebe." Those brilliant balls, in their way, are as incredible now as the slave marts and the Voudou dances; which, in their way, they seem subtly, indissolubly connected with.


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A Negro type.

The free coloured men, per contra, were retiring, modest, and industrious. The following notes are taken from an unpublished manuscript of Charles Gayarréc on the subject:—

"By 1830, some of these gens de couleur had arrived at such a degree of wealth as to own cotton and sugar plantations with numerous slaves. They educated their children, as they had been p345educated, in France. Those who chose to remain there, attained, many of them, distinction in scientific and literary circles. In New Orleans they became musicians, merchants, and money and real estate brokers. The humbler classes were mechanics; they monopolized the trade of shoemakers, a trade for which, even to this day, they have a special vocation; they were barbers, tailors, carpenters, upholsterers. They were notably successful hunters and supplied the city with game. As tailors, they were almost exclusively patronized by the élite, so much so that the Legoasters', the Dumas', the Clovis', the Lacroix', acquired individually fortunes of several hundred thousands of dollars. This class was most respectable; they generally married women of their own status, and led lives quiet, dignified and worthy, in homes of ease and comfort. A few who had reached a competency sufficient for it, attempted to settle in France, where there was no prejudice against their origin; but in more than one case the experiment was not satisfactory, and they returned to their former homes in Louisiana. When astonishment was expressed, they would reply, with a smile: 'It is hard for one who has once tasted the Mississippi to keep away from it.'

"In fact, the quadroons of Louisiana have always shown a strong local attachment, although in the state they were subjected to grievances, which seemed to them unjust, if not cruel. It is true, they possessed many of the civil and legal rights enjoyed by the whites, as to the protection of person and property; but they were disqualified from political rights and social equality. But . . . it is always to be remembered that in their contact with white men, they did not assume that creeping posture of debasement — nor did the whites expect it — which has more or less been forced upon them in fiction. In fact, their handsome, good-natured faces seem almost incapable of despair. It is true the whites were superior to them, but they, in their turn, were superior, and infinitely superior, to the blacks, and had as much objection to associating with the blacks on terms of equality as any white man could have to associating with them. At the Orleans theatre they attended their mothers, wives, and sisters in the second tier, reserved exclusively for them, and where no white person of either sex would have been permitted to intrude. But they were not admitted to the quadroon balls, and when white gentlemen visited p346their families it was the accepted etiquette for them never to be present.

"Nevertheless it must not be imagined that the amenities were not observed when the men of the races met, for business or otherwise; many anecdotes are told to illustrate this. The wealthy owner of a large sugar plantation lived in a parish where resided also a rich, highly educated sugar planter of mixed blood, a man who had a reputation in his day for his rare and extensive library. Both planters met on a steamboat. When the hour for dinner struck, the white gentleman observed a small table set aside, at which his companion quietly took his place. Moved by this voluntary exhibition of humble acquiescence in the exigencies of his social position, the white gentleman, escorted by a friend, went over to the small table and addressed the solitary guest: 'We desire you to dine with us.' 'I am grateful for your kindness, gentlemen,' was the reply, 'and I would cheerfully accept your invitation, but my presence at your table, if acceptable to you, might be displeasing to others. Therefore, permit me to remain where I am.'

"Another citizen, a Creole, and one of the finest representatives of the old population, occupying the highest social position, was once travelling in the country. His horses appearing tired, and he himself feeling the need of refreshment, he began to look around for some place to stop. He was just in front of a very fine, large plantation belonging to a man of colour, whom he knew very well, a polished, educated man, who made frequent visits to Paris. He drove unhesitatingly to the house, and alighting, said: 'I have come to tax your hospitality.' 'Never shall a tax be paid more willingly,' was the prompt reply. 'I hope I am not too late for dinner.' 'For you, sir, it is never too late at my house for anything that you may desire.' A command was given; cook and butler made their preparations, and dinner was announced. The guest noticed but one seat and one plate at the table. He exclaimed: 'What! Am I to dine alone?' 'I regret, sir, that I cannot join you, but I have already dined.' 'My friend,' answered his guest, with a good-natured smile on his lips, 'Permit me on this occasion to doubt your word, and to assure you that I shall order my carriage immediately and leave, without touching a mouthful of this appetizing menu, unless you share it p347with me.' The host was too much of a Chesterfield not to dine a second time, if courtesy or a guest required.

"The free quadroon women of middle age were generally in easy circumstances, and comfortable in their mode of living. They owned slaves, skilful hairdressers, fine washerwomen, accomplished seamstresses, who brought them in a handsome revenue. Expert themselves at all kinds of needle-work, and not deficient in taste, some of them rose to the importance of modistes, and fashioned the dresses of the elegantes among the white ladies. Many of them made a specialty of making the fine linen shirts worn at the day by gentlemen and were paid two dollars and a half apiece for them, at which rate of profit a quadroon woman could always earn an honest, comfortable living. Besides, they monopolized the renting, at high prices, of furnished rooms to white gentlemen. This monopoly was easily obtained, for it was difficult to equal them in attention to their tenants, and the tenants indeed would have been hard to please had they not been satisfied. These rooms, with their large post bedsteads, immaculate linen, snowy mosquito bars, were models of cleanliness and comfort. In the morning the nicest cup of hot coffee was brought to the bedside; in the evening, at the foot of the bed, there stood the never failing tub of fresh water with sweet-smelling towels. As landladies they were both menials and friends, and always affable and anxious to please. A cross one would have been a phenomenon. If their tenants fell ill, the old quadroons and, under their direction, the young ones, were the best and kindest of nurses. Many of them, particularly those who came from St. Domingo, were expert in the treatment of yellow fever. Their honesty was proverbial."

The desire of distinction, to rise from a lower level to social equality with a superior race, was implanted in the heart of the quadroon, as in that of all women. Hence an aversion on their part to marrying men of their own colour, and hence their relaxation and deviation from, if not their complete denial of, the code of morality accepted by white women, and their consequent adoption of a separate standard of morals for themselves, p348and the forcing it upon the community and upon the men of their own colour. Assuming as a merit and a distinction what is universally considered in the civilized world a shame and disgrace by their sex, their training of their daughters had but one end in view. Unscrupulous and pitiless, by nature or circumstance, as one chooses to view it, secretly still claiming the racial license of Africa, they were, in regard to family purity, domestic peace, and household dignity, the most insidious and the deadliest foes a community ever possessed. Many of the quadroon belles, however, attained honourable marriage, and, removing to France, obtained full social recognition for themselves and their children.

The great ambition of the unmarried quadroon mothers was to have their children pass for whites, and so get access to the privileged class. To reach this end, there was nothing they would not attempt, no sacrifice they would not make. To protect society against one of their means, a law was passed making it a penal offence for a public officer in the discharge of his functions, when writing down the name of any coloured free person, to fail to add the qualification "homme" or "femme de couleur libre." But the officers of the law could be bribed, even the records of baptism tampered with; and the qualification once dropped, acted inversely, as a patent of pure blood.

It was in 1842, in the very heyday of the brilliant, unwholesome notoriety of the quadroon women, that the congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family was founded. Three young women of colour, descendants of three of the oldest and most respectable free coloured families in the city, came together resolved to p349devote their lives, education, and wealth to the cause of religion and charity among their own people; to succour the helpless and old, to befriend friendless young coloured girls, to teach the catechism to the young, and prepare young and old for the sacrament of communion. They were afterwards joined by another young woman, like themselves of good family, education, and means. Their vocation, under the circumstances, seems sublime; their name a divine inspiration.


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Stairway in the Convent of the Holy Family.

Mother Juliette was the oldest of the four young women. Of their history and personality, beyond their having possessed, in a marked degree, the beauty of their class, little is known. They concealed their past, with their features, under the veil of their order. But it would seem that, in their case, the imagination is a safe means of approach to the story of their lives. And the imagination prompted, it may be, by the impulsive sentiment of sympathy; picturing them making proof p350of their faith in their environment of race, time, and circumstance, sees them in the similitude of those barbarian virgins of primeval Christianity who made proof of their faith in the blood-stained arena of the amphitheatre; wild beasts springing around them, a pampered, luxurious world looking on. — In their renunciation, they at least, of their race, found the road to social equality. No white woman could do more; none have done better.

Like all beginners in a new field, they had many obstacles, trials, and tribulations to overcome; but their perseverance never faltered, and they could always count upon the support and sympathy of the Archbishop and his Vicar-General. Their first establishment was an obscure one on Bayou road. A few years later, they took charge of a home for old and infirm women; later, they built their house on Bayou road, between Rampart and St. Claude streets.

As may be foreseen, it was after the civil war that the sisters received the impetus of a new life, and felt the true prophetic bidding of the vocation that first sent them into service. Such a wave of want and misery from their own race rolled in upon them, that they battled merely to keep head above it. But nevertheless they managed to establish a school, open two branch houses in the country, and take charge of an orphan asylum. In 1881 they felt the ground under their feet once more, and looking up saw the promise of a new era dawning upon them. The old Orleans street ball-room was in the market for sale. They bought it. When they are asked "What were your means?" they answer simply: "Prayer and begging." When it is asked in the community, "Which are the sisters p351to whom one listens and gives with the most pleasure?" the answer is unhesitating, "The little coloured sisters."

The community consists of forty-nine sisters, a superior, and an assistant. They follow the rule of St. Augustine, the novitiate lasting two years and six months; vows are renewed every year until after ten years' profession, when they become perpetual. They receive orphans, not only from Louisiana, but from every state in the Union; from South America, Central America, and Mexico. Their pay scholars come from every community, it would seem, in the New World to which Africans were brought as slaves, and they represent every possible admixture of French, Spanish, English, Indian, and African blood. There are few pure Africans among them.

Adjoining the Orleans ball-room, as we know, stood that social cynosure, the Orleans theatre. Long since burned down, its site was filled by the most blatant of circuses about the time that the ball-room became converted into a convent. The ring of the circus was separated only by the necessary width of the wall from the ball-room — that is, from the chapel of the convent, and from the very altar which filled the end of the ball-room; and the ribald noises of the ring made most demoniacal irruptions into the chapel, disturbing the devotions of the sisters, profaning their most sacred ceremonies. Indeed, as related by the sisters, it seemed at times, such was the din that poured in from behind the altar and over the head of the pale virgin, as if the old mocking spirits of the room, infuriated into a ten-thousandfold fury of maliciousness, were determined to regain possession of it. The discouraging thought p352more than once came to the sisters — it was of course the malicious suggestion of the evil spirits — that neither prayer nor exorcism would ever prevail against the genius loci, that the ball-room could never become a chapel, but must remain according to its original character, a ball-room, aye and forever. And so twelvemonth succeeded twelvemonth, and circus and convent, in their inevitable antagonism, waged their war, each after its kind; the convent, silent, resigned, firm; the circus, bold, brazen, and triumphant, as no doubt circuses cannot help being. But the circus, foredoomed (as circuses also inevitably seem to be), went the way of the theatre: it was consumed one night.

The convent, by the usual miracle of convents, escaped. And it did more than escape; for, before the dawning of daylight, a scheme to buy the ground under the smouldering ruins of her antagonist began to formulate itself in the brain of the mother superior. The scheme was imparted to the community by after service; by noon the prayers and the begging to accomplish it were at work. The orphan asylum to‑day fills the site of the circus; and, covering the ring of the circus — not to say that the measurement is exact, over the once noisy, brilliant little hippodrome (it was never more wicked than that), extinguishing forever even the memory of its departed glories of spangles, stockinette, clown, trapeze, trick horse, and learned dog — rises a chapel, the new public chapel of convent and asylum.

This chapel, it must be emphasized as a necessary finish to the relation, was built from a legacy left the sisters, just at the moment they needed it for the purpose, by one of their own colour and class, Thomy Lafon, a philanthropist who (this must also be added p353to the relation and to his memory), seeing no colour nor sect in his love for his city, distributed his life's earnings, by will, indiscriminately among white and black, Protestant and Catholic. The state legislature has ordered his bust to be carved and set up in one of the public institutions in the city. Like the statue to Margaret, it will be first memorial of its kind in the country. It will be the first public testimonial by a state to a man of colour, in recognition of his broad humanitarianism and true-hearted philanthropy.

"This," said the sister, stopping at the chapel door, "is the old Orleans ball-room; they say it is the best dancing floor in the world. It is made of three thicknesses of cypress. That is the balcony where the ladies and gentlemen used to promenade; on the banquette down there the beaux used to fight duels."


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Thayer's Notes:

a My caption, significantly different from that in the engraving itself, is taken from that author's own caption as given in her Table of Illustrations, q.v.

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b The most strikingly prescient and sympathetic statement by the author on the subject of African-Americans: the music of New Orleans to which black people have contributed so much has gained not only national, but international acclaim; which will be remembered by any visitor arriving at Louis Armstrong International Airport.

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c The historian Charles Gayarré is represented on this site by his 4‑volume History of Louisiana.


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Page updated: 26 Dec 05