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Shrine of the times

Sister Carla Dolce and the battle for hope

FRANK METHE PHOTOGRAPH

At 5 years old, Carla Dolce was barely tall enough to see inside the coffin that held the body of her 15-year-old cousin. As the tiny girl stood on her toes trying to peer inside, a man walked up to the front of the parlor of the Lamana-Panno-Fallo Funeral home where the coffin sat on a bier for viewing. That man stood beside little Carla and lifted her up for a brief second, but it was time enough to leave a life-long impression on young Miss Dolce’s mind.

“I looked down and even at my young age, from that vision, from what I saw in that coffin, I realized that I, too, was going to die one day,” Sister Carla Dolce O.S.U., says three-quarters of a century later. “It was a traumatic experience, one that I thought about many times and wrestled with … but one which eventually led me to an inevitable conclusion: When I do die, when I join my cousin and other relatives and friends at the end of my life, I want that life to have been meaningful, to have meant something!”

Like her older brother, Carl, the one-time Superintendent of the Orleans Parish School Board, Carla chose a life of teaching and leading others through education.

The path chosen by Carla Dolce was as an Ursuline nun, the oldest serving religious order in New Orleans – although many Jesuits would disagree with that.

“It’s up for grabs,” Sister Carla says with her trademark smile. “Both the Ursulines and the Jesuits have served the people of New Orleans with great distinction over the past few centuries. Both orders are as much a part of New Orleans history as the Battle of New Orleans.” (More on that in a minute.)

During Sister Carla’s 56-year career as an Ursuline nun, she’s worked with ecumenical groups in the Parkchester neighborhood and as a classroom teacher, principal and president of Ursuline schools in St. Louis, Dallas, Houston, Springfield and Alton, Ill. She has worked on mission teams with Jesuits and Dominicans. “… And I’ve loved every second of it,” she says. And if there’s anything she loves more, it’s “… being back in my native New Orleans. God, how I love this city! You know I’ve thought about death and how I want to be laid out. At first, I wanted to be cremated, but then I thought, ‘Hey, I never let anybody make an ash of me when I was alive, why would I want them to make an ash of me when I died?’ But what the heck! Being an Italian from New Orleans, I figured it all out: Right before I die, I’m going to eat three jars of artichoke hearts, die and be cremated. They’ll put my ashes into the empty artichoke jars and spread them at pre-selected spots I’ve served around the country … One of them, of course, will be spread over my native New Orleans!”

There is laughter all around at the typical wisecrack from Sister Carla. Then again, nobody is really sure whether she’s joking or not.

But the subject of New Orleans is broached. And when that happens, it’s hard to talk to Sister Carla Dolce about anything else.

In her current job as prioress of the New Orleans Ursuline nuns, Sister Carla has taken on the task to make ready the National Votive Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, next door to the convent on State Street, for the 2015 bicentennial celebration of the Battle of New Orleans. Back in 1815, Gen. Andrew Jackson led a thrown-together army of perhaps 6,000 of his troops, a motley band of farmers and shopkeepers from around New Orleans – joined by a cadre of pirates under the notorious Jean Lafitte – against British Gen. Edward Packenham’s 15,000 crack British troops on the swampy land of Chalmette.

“It was a miracle, that’s all it could have been,” Sister Carla says of General Jackson’s routing of the British. “Ursuline sisters and lay people from throughout the French Quarter prayed all the night before the battle. The next morning Mass was celebrated. The prioress at the time promised Our Lady that if Gen. Jackson was victorious, a Mass of Thanksgiving would be celebrated each year.”

That vow has been kept. A Mass has been celebrated at the shrine, first in the French Quarter then at its present State Street address, by the archbishop of New Orleans each of the past 197 years since the battle.

Although the story is part of the lore of the Ursuline Sisters, and Sister Carla herself has recounted it countless times to those not familiar with it, her eyes light up each time she tells it.

“It’s going to be quite a celebration … as it should be,” Sister Carla says. “The Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812 was signed two weeks earlier, but it had not yet been ratified by Congress, nor had word arrived at Gen. Jackson’s camp in time to prevent the battle. Fighting a battle after a war had ended. Only in New Orleans could something like that happen. How fitting. But, in truth, that battle had enormous repercussions even though the war itself was officially over. That battle down in the swamps and woods around what’s now Chalmette was an exclamation point on America. Up to that battle, America had been looked on as a loose configuration of states. But his event, this Battle of New Orleans, let the world know that America was here to stay!”

Sister Carla’s job now may seem as tough as the one faced by Andrew Jackson nearly two centuries ago. She must raise $2 million to place a new roof on the shrine and to remediate the mold and mildew that has formed on some of the walls and finally to waterproof the entire building.

“This building itself really means nothing,” Sister Carla says. “It’s just a pile of bricks and wood. It’s what it represents to the people who come here.” She walks down a darkened aisle and a tiny octogenarian woman looks up from her rosary beads, smiles and nods to the nun. Sister Carla returns the smile and pats her on the hand. Neither of the women speaks for fear of breaking the meditative aura that permeates the church/shrine.

Moments later in the sacristy that’s redolent with the aroma of old wood and stored books and candle wax, Sister Carla looks out at the sprinkling of men, women and students from Ursuline Academy next door, who are deep in prayer. She points up to the iconic statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary holding the child Jesus, both of whom are wearing crowns. “That represents hope,” she says. “That’s what this is all about. Gen. Jackson knew that.

That’s why he came to the shrine on Chartres (Street) right after his victory. He came to thank everybody who had prayed. He came to express his hope for the future of our new nation. It’s the same here today: battles being fought in homes, in people’s hearts … children on drugs, a mother who says her daughter hasn’t talked to her in years. I cry when I read some of these notes and letters. We get petitions like this every day from all over New Orleans … from all over the nation. Hundreds and hundreds. Back in March, one of our (Ursuline) students was praying and during her prayers, she asked God for a sign. Then it appeared … the face of Jesus. Right there on that column. This church has been here for a long, long time and it had never appeared before. Word spread and people came … and still more. They saw and they believed. It’s still there, every day. The face of Jesus. This shrine is where people come to find that hope they must have … that they must believe in.”

Both the elementary school and academy sessions are just beginning and there’s a smattering of noise here and there: painters painting, janitors polishing floors, administrative personnel readying files in this office or that cubbyhole. And through it all, Sister Carla Dolce moves effortlessly around the endless halls of the massive three-story cyclone-like building Uptown off South Claiborne Avenue. She is easily recognizable by her trademark brightly checkered blouse and her occasional joke (Telephone rings: “Hello, of course this is Carla Dolce … who’d ya think it was, Sophia Loren?”) and her ever-present smile. Truth is, the 79-year-old may have many things on her overflowing plate as usual, but one now is taking up a great deal of her time: Repairing the National Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor for the bicentennial celebration of the Battle of New Orleans.

But whatever you do, don’t even hint that this will be the crowning achievement of the career of Sister Carla Dolce O.S.U., that after the celebration she’ll just ride off into the sunset.

“Hey,” she’ll be quick to point out. “I’m not ready for those artichoke jars just yet!”

For more information about the Ursuline Sisters and/or the National Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, visit ShrineOfOurLadyOfPromptSuccor.com.

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