What if I told you that I could weave a story connecting Napoleon, a 19th century pope, the city of New Orleans, and my home in present-day Florida? Would you believe me?
What if this story also included things like fire, hurricanes, religious persecution, and the War of 1812? Interested?
Then sit back, friend, while I tell you the story of Our Lady of Prompt Succor. Those of you from the greater Louisiana area will certainly have heard of her. For the rest of us, though—especially those who don’t spend their summer months under threat of hurricane warnings—maybe you’ll discover a new and interesting devotion to Our Lady.
Ursuline Roots in New Orleans
In the early 1700s, French Ursuline sisters came to America and established a monastery and schools in New Orleans, Louisiana. Within 50 years, though, ownership of that territory transferred to Spain. When the French regained control of the area in 1800, many of the Spanish Ursuline sisters fled to Cuba to escape anti-Catholic persecution from the Napoleonic forces. Only seven French sisters remained.
In 1803, one of these sisters, Mother St. Andre’ Medier, wrote to her cousin in France. She requested help in the form of additional sisters to save their once flourishing school and community. This cousin, Mother St. Michel Gensoul, was another Ursuline sister. She was recently exiled from her community, like many other religious during Napoleon’s reign. In her exile, she was running a boarding school for girls in Montpellier.
Mother St. Michel’s bishop, Bishop Fournier, declined to send Mother or any other sisters to the community in New Orleans. The French Revolution was not kind to Catholic communities and he was desperately shorthanded. Bishop Fournier told Mother St. Michel that the only way he would give her permission to leave was if she obtained approval from the Pope himself.
The problem with that plan was that Pope Pius VII was currently under house arrest as a prisoner of Napoleon.
Not to be deterred, Mother St. Michel wrote to the pope. And, in an inspired moment of prayer to Our Lady, said these words:
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.
Prompt and Favorable
In an unbelievable turn of events, Pope Pius VII not only received but swiftly answered Mother’s letter. Within three months, she received a letter in which he praised her for her generosity and approved her move to Louisiana. Through Our Lady’s intercession, the sisters were granted a response that was both prompt and favorable!
By way of thanks, Mother St. Michel had a statue of the Blessed Mother and Infant Jesus commissioned to take with her to New Orleans. Bishop Fournier blessed the statue and it was brought to the monastery chapel in Louisiana by Mother St. Michel and several postulants by the end of 1810.
Fire and War and Hurricanes
Our Lady of Prompt Succor has not abandoned the people of New Orleans as the years pass. In 1812, a massive fire in the city threatened the monastery. One of the sisters held a statue of Our Lady in a window facing the direction of the fire. The sisters prayed, the wind changed direction and pushed the fire away. The monastery was saved.
Then in 1815, many of the faithful of New Orleans, including the families of American soldiers serving under General Andrew Jackson, gathered to pray for her intercession and protection. The city was going to be attacked by the British and was in danger of changing hands yet again. However, American forces prevailed and saw very few casualties even though they had been up against a much superior British contingent.
Every year on January 8, a special Mass is said at the Shrine in thanksgiving to Our Lady of Prompt Succor for her help during the Battle of New Orleans. This was promised by the Ursulines to Andrew Jackson when he came to the convent to thank them for their prayers. It’s a tradition that continues to this day.
Patronages and Present Day Devotions
Our Lady of Prompt Succor was recognized as an approved devotion in September of 1851. Since then, she has been revered as the patroness of the state of Louisiana, the Catholic Diocese of New Orleans, and as protector from hurricanes.
Two of my friends, Chris and Rebecca, have special devotions to the Blessed Mother under this title. Chris is from New Orleans. His parents and a sister married at the shrine and he served for several years as a tour guide there. Rebecca, who studied at Tulane, had a peaceful time of prayer in front of the “sweetheart statue,” the statue that the nuns held up during the fire that turned the flames. She says that, while an immediate answer to her prayer wasn’t given, the peace that came from the experience made her know that her prayers were heard. Their three-year-old son sleeps with a prayer card with this image on it and their infant daughter was baptized at the shrine earlier this year.
Meeting Our Lady of Prompt Succor
It wasn’t until two years ago, however, when our part of Florida was about to be hit by Hurricane Matthew that I even wondered if there is a patron saint of hurricanes. As I was preparing a basket filled with our family Rosaries, holy cards, a cross, and holy water, I did what every modern day woman would do. I Googled it.
And what was the first thing that popped up? A beautiful image of the statue and this prayer copied from the back of a holy card:
Our Father in Heaven through the intercession of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, spare us during this hurricane season from all harm. Protect us and our homes from all disasters of nature. Our Lady of Prompt Succor, hasten to help us. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Saying that prayer brought much comfort to my family and me during the last two hurricanes we faced.
What are Your Storms?
So, sisters, whatever storms you are facing in your life—whether they are actual hurricanes this year or simply storms in your soul—have faith in the intercession of our Blessed Mother under her mantle as Our Lady of Prompt Succor.
Trust that her answer to you will be as prompt and favorable as it has been for the past 200 years.
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Beth Williby is a mom of four pretty amazing humans and has been married to her college sweetheart for almost twenty years. She does her best praying through singing and feeding the people she loves. Having grown up in the Midwest, she now calls Northeast Florida home. You can find out more about her here.