Sister Donna’s Sweetheart statue
Flash: An Ursuline Nun at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor on State Street has a sweetheart!
But, that’s OK, the sweetheart in question has captured the hearts and minds of countless thousands of other men, women and children in New Orleans and in foreign places where requests have been made and prayers have been answered.
Sister Donna Hyndman O.S.U., assistant director of the National Shrine, directs a visitor to the tiny room – “A shrine within a shrine,” as one of the nuns calls it – at the rear of the massive building in Uptown New Orleans. It is a simple place, no bigger than a closet, furnished with a kneeler and a glass enclosed miniature plaster replica of the larger Our Lady of Prompt Succor statue in the shrine.
“The Sweetheart came from the west of France, a monastery known as Pont-Saint-Esprit,” Sister Donna says. “In 1785 Sister Felicite went into the attic and found it atop a pile of rubbish. She was very upset that anybody would treat this statue of Our Lady in such a way. At the time, Sister Felicite and two others sisters had requested to be allowed to join the Ursuline sisters in New Orleans. Spain ruled New Orleans and the request needed the approval of the Spanish king. The sisters had waited and waited. Sister Felicite may have seen her discovering the little statue as a sign. She fell to her knees and prayed, ‘My good mother, if you will take away the obstacles that stand in the way of our departure, I will carry you to New Orleans and I promise to have you honored there by every means in my power.’ Within a month, Sister received permission to come to New Orleans, and she carried the Sweetheart statue with her to the Old Ursuline Convent on Chartres Street.”
Nor did the “miracles” end there. The Sweetheart statue is said to have played a part in turning back fires that threatened to engulf the French Quarter but were stopped at the gates of the convent. Victory over the British in the Battle of New Orleans is ascribed to prayers before images of Our Lady of Prompt Succor – images that included the sweetheart statue.
On a breezy autumn afternoon, Elaine St. Pierre finds her way to the darkened corner of the shrine and kneels before the Sweetheart. She lingers there for nearly and hour and a smile shows on her face as she makes the sign of the cross. “She heard my prayers,” St. Pierre says. “Thank you mama!”
“The prayers, the petitions, they’re ongoing,” Sister Donna says. “This is a place of hope. And this little corner of the world, this Sweetheart has special meaning to so many people.”
Throughout the afternoon, Sister Donna and Sister Carla Dolce O.S.U., Director of the Shrine, tell of this miracle of a family that was reunited after years of estrangement, and this cancer that was healed and that job application that “miraculously came through.” They tell of an elderly nun, Mother St. Benoit, who retired from teaching at Ursuline Academy and after leaving the classroom walked the halls of the massive Uptown building greeting students and chatting with them and their parents.
“A parent or a student would tell of what seemed to be a turn of events in their life and of how it came about after praying before the ‘little statue,’” Sister Donna says. “Sister would always say about the statue, ‘She’s such a sweetheart.’ The name stuck.”
But that military medal, those silver wings at the foot of the Sweetheart that seem as much a part of the statue as the crowns on the heads of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her son … What about that medal?
A faint smile crosses Sister Donna’s face. You know one of her favorite stories is coming.
“A young pilot named Albert Richard was assigned to duty in Europe during World War II,” she says. “He came and asked the sisters if he could take the Sweetheart into battle with him. Of course, the sisters had to tell him no, but suggested he take pictures of the Sweetheart into battle. He did that, and when he came back safely from the war he offered the silver wings medal he had received for bravery for placement at her feet. See! Mr. Richard’s medal is there to this day.”
A sweetheart story if ever there was one.
See related story, Battle of New Orleans