SCOTT SIMON, Host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
Stay tuned for more updates on the condition of Ariel Sharon, but first, Louisiana has been ruled by chiefs, kings, an emperor and presidents, but Catholics in the state pledge their allegiance to a saint. Tomorrow, Louisiana will celebrate her feast day. She is Our Lady of Prompt Succor, S-U-C-C-O-R, the Virgin Mary you need for help in a hurry. Our editor Gwendolyn Thompkins recently visited the national shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, which is coming back after Hurricane Katrina. The shrine's under the care of the Ursuline nuns, who've educated girls in New Orleans for nearly 300 years. With much needed help from Prompt Succor, the nuns even taught Gwen. She sent back these impressions.
GWENDOLYN THOMPKINS: Our Lady of Prompt Succor is the kind of patron saint who seems tailor-made for the 21st century. In this fast-paced, double-shot-latte-drinking, instant-messaging, attention-deficit-disordered world, she moves as quickly as we do, and she's the saint to whom you can end a prayer in good conscience by saying, `And make it snappy.'
SONYA MCQUARTER: (Singing) Hail, Mary, queen of heaven. Hail, Mary, mother dear. In thee I find my Jesus. Near thee I hold no fear.
THOMPKINS: But promptness isn't her only bounty. In layman's terms, she's a friend in need. The Ursuline nuns say that for nearly 200 years she has helped them make their way, first into the good graces of Pope Pius VII, who in 1809 allowed the second wave of Ursulines to set sail for Louisiana, then into the French Quarter, where she reportedly smothered two major fires and even into battle where she really outdid herself. Our Lady of Prompt Succor is widely thought to have helped Andrew Jackson browbeat the British army out of the New World.
MCQUARTER: (Singing) Hail, mother of Prompt Succor, make haste, help me thy child. Hail, mother of Prompt Succor, make haste, help me thy child.
THOMPKINS: Nowadays, much of her work is in uptown New Orleans. That's where the national shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor stands on the campus of Ursuline Academy, and that's where she's been helping the nuns browbeat schoolgirls into literate young ladies.
MCQUARTER: (Singing) Make haste, help me thy child.
THOMPKINS: What's the secret of making ladies out of girls? Even an atheist would be tempted to say that it takes a lot of prayer, and in some cases, it takes a miracle. Sister Joan Marie Aycock keeps track of the many miracles attributed to Our Lady of Prompt Succor. She's the archivist at Ursuline Academy and has stories dating back to the founding of the school in 1727. Ursuline is the oldest all-girls school in the nation. Sister Joan is not as old, but she does look like she could be related to Clarence, the angel from "It's A Wonderful Life." She likes to concentrate on what the Ursulines and their patron saint have accomplished over the years: religious girl power.
JOAN MARIE AYCOCK: When you stop to think we're a group of elderly women running a million-dollar school, we don't have all the modern knowledge and gifts and things. We always feel like we turn to her and we said we put the school in her hands. You know, we can't do it by ourselves.
THOMPKINS: When you climb up to the third-floor museum with Sister Joan, she breezes past a letter from Thomas Jefferson as if he were just another boy.
This is a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote.
MARIE AYCOCK: Thomas Jefferson wrote. Yes.
THOMPKINS: `I salute you, holy sisters, with friendship and respect,' signed Thomas Jefferson.
There's also a letter from James Madison and a rare bust of Andrew Jackson. He was quite a fan. In 1815 after the Americans whooped the redcoats at the Battle of New Orleans, the general paid a special visit to the Ursulines and thanked them for their prayers to Our Lady of Prompt Succor.
The modern shrine was built in the 1920s, a chapel in the Gothic revival style of the Ursuline compound. High above the altar is a gilded incarnation of Our Lady of Prompt Succor. She's holding the baby Jesus with both hands. It's an unusual posture for a statue of the Virgin Mary. She looks like she's about to put him down for a nap and he looks fat and fussy. A French statue maker created this surprisingly natural family portrait in 1809. He had to fold in Mary's extended right arm because it didn't fit into the container leaving France.
Sylvia Probst is a former principal of the high school at Ursuline Academy. She and Sister Joan showed us the shrine the other day.
SYLVIA PROBST: We have a spotlight that's on Our Lady, you know, in normal times.
MARIE AYCOCK: Well, it looks like it's kind of bright now.
PROBST: Well, because I have the flashlight on it.
MARIE AYCOCK: Oh, Sylvia, you didn't tell me that. I thought I was seeing a miracle.
PROBST: No, well, sometimes I just do things on my own.
MARIE AYCOCK: So that is the original statue?
THOMPKINS: The crowns that the statues wear on January 8th, the feast day of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, are bedecked with precious stones from the jewelry donated in 1894 by the citizens of New Orleans.
MARIE AYCOCK: The bishop asked that people would give jewels and give things for her coronation, and people who were not Catholics, I mean, it--the city was so small at the time, you have to remember, so that everybody wanted to be a part of it.
THOMPKINS: Another smaller statue of Mary is in the cove of an adjoining inner chapel and has her own history of derring-do. The nuns once put her in a window facing a fire that threatened the city and she is believed to have changed the direction of the wind. For that and a thousand times a thousand answered prayers, they call her sweetheart.
MCQUARTER: (Singing) Hail, mother of Prompt Succor, make haste, help me thy child. Hail, mother of Prompt Succor, make haste, help me thy child. Make haste, help me thy child.
THOMPKINS: The Ursuline nuns were cloistered in New Orleans for more than 200 years, but they made their presence and their views felt throughout the city. From the very beginning, they educated only girls, white and black girls, rich and poor girls, free, slave, Hispanic, Creole and Native American. The nuns understood the outside world and they knew they could refine it. Gretchen Kane is president of Ursuline Academy.
GRETCHEN KANE: St. Angela Merici, who founded the order, said, `This order is going to be founded to educate women because educating women will make a more civilized society.' I really like the sound of that. I said, `You betcha it'll be more civilized with women educated.'
THOMPKINS: The nuns have long since turned over the lion's share of teaching to laypeople, but when I was a student there, they held to the time-honored classics: French, madrigals, Shakespeare and the periodic chart. Our chemistry and physics teacher, Sister Ruth Marie Call, rarely identified you by name, preferring the term Girly Bird(ph). She was tiny, tart and tough, the kind of teacher who could size you up and tell you how much you were worth by the pound. Most days it wasn't much. Sometimes you could find her staring at you with one of those long looks that said, `Girly Bird, you are the weak link in this rosary.'
Not even Katrina scared her. Sister Ruth was last seen at the age of 91 piling onto a motorboat on campus and later airlifted to an Ursuline compound in Indiana. She says she'll be back tomorrow for the feast day of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, and if you don't believe her, then you are the weak link in this rosary.
MCQUARTER: (Singing) Bright star on life's vast ocean, thou whom the world admires, has freed our state and city from sin, flood, war and fire.
THOMPKINS: Katrina accomplished what neither fire nor flood nor the British army could do to the Ursulines. The nuns had to evacuate. Their grounds had always been prone to floods. Even a passing summer storm would accumulate on the property, pooling water under the windows of the classrooms. Then (snaps) just like that the water would vanish.
When Katrina flooded Ursuline with brine and muck, choking the magnolia trees and the live oaks, the herb garden and the palmettos, the nuns held their ground. They had taken in more than 30 neighbors and others in need of shelter, and they asked Our Lady of Prompt Succor to make haste.
MARIE AYCOCK: I didn't have fearful feelings. I didn't have where--I wasn't worried. I just thought, `Well, this is another one of our adventures,' you know, because that's what is behind our love of Our Lady and her son. They're going to put us through some trials, but this wasn't anything we couldn't handle.
THOMPKINS: But this time was different. The water stayed. With no electricity and under threat of looting, the nuns pulled out. For the first time in 278 years, the Ursulines left Louisiana. Some went to the Ursuline Convent in Dallas, others to Indiana.
MARIE AYCOCK: You did not see anybody crying. You did not see anybody complaining. They went in perfect peace, you know? But I want to add this. Can I tell you what I was thinking after Katrina? I thought to myself, `Well, Our Lady, I don't know. It looks like you didn't take care of us this time.' And I began thinking about it; you know, had she let us down? And then I thought, `No, Katrina did not hit us directly, and the flood was a manmade thing.' You know, they had built the levees. They were responsible for that. So that's why I could say, `All right. You did save us from the hurricane, and it's not your fault that we flooded.'
THOMPKINS: Some of the nuns have since reunited on campus, but they've been lonely. There's nothing emptier than a school without children: no footsteps, no echoes, no sass, nothing but old ladies in waiting, until now.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION EQUIPMENT)
THOMPKINS: The shrine reopens tomorrow and work on campus has been non-stop. Ursuline is drying out. Repairmen have replaced the electrical nerves of the school, which were drowned in the basement. They've cleared away scores of fallen trees. They've fixed busted walkways. The elementary school opened this week and the high school opens Monday, but there is still more to be done. The roof of the mausoleum needs repatching, the herb garden needs replanting. The grounds, now bald in some places, need resodding. The raised fish pond in the center of the courtyard has been repainted, but now needs fish.
A M: that you have but slumbered here while these visions did appear and this weak and idle theme no more yielding but a dream.'
These past months in New Orleans still seem like a dream from which we must all awaken, but the Ursulines mark time differently. For them, this has only been winter number 278 in the New World. And in June when the next hurricane season begins, the nuns will again pray to Our Lady of Prompt Succor to make haste.
SIMON: (In unison) Our Father in heaven, through the powerful intercession of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, spare us during this hurricane season and protect us and our homes from all disasters of nature. Our Lady of Prompt Succor, hasten to help us.
THOMPKINS: Don't underestimate Prompt Succor. As Shakespeare writes, `Though she be but little, she is fierce.'
MCQUARTER: (Singing) Hail, Mary, queen of heaven. Hail, Mary, mother dear. In thy I find my Jesus. Near thee I hold no fear. Hail, mother of Prompt Succor, make haste, help me thy child. Hail, mother of Prompt Succor, make haste, help me thy child. Make haste, help me thy child.
SIMON: Gwendolyn Thompkins is the senior editor of our program. This is her third essay from New Orleans. This series was produced by Sarah Beyer Kelly and mixed by Andrea Jackson-Gewirtz. Special thanks to Ursuline alumna Sonya McQuarter for singing the school's hymn.
You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.