Wednesday 10 June 2015

A Salon Guest: The Ursulines

Once again it is my pleasure to welcome Regan Walker to the salon, with a fascinating look at the Ursulines.


My latest novel, To Tame the Wind, begins in 1780 in the Ursuline Convent in Saint-Denis, then a small town just outside of Paris. The heroine, Claire Donet, is the granddaughter of a comte, boarding in the convent school with other children of the nobility so that she can one day take her place as the mistress of a grand home. Of course, a certain English privateer will interfere with those plans, but what of the Ursulines she lived among for so many years?

Who were the Ursulines?

The Ursulines were an order of nuns who became famous for their teaching of young girls. Originally “the Company of St. Ursula” was an order founded in 1535 by Angela Merici in the town of Brescia, Italy. Members of the Company of St. Ursula did not take vows, but simply promised “virginity” and lived in their own family homes, supporting themselves by their work.

After Angela Merici's death in 1540, and under the influence of the Council of Trent, members of the Company became involved in the teaching of the Christian faith. By about 1590, the Company reached France. Parisian noblewomen, anxious to support the reforms of the Council, undertook to establish religious communities of women in Paris and elsewhere.

By 1612, with Papal approval, the original idea of “the Company” gave way to that of a monastic order in which the members, called “Ursulines”, lived in canonical isolation. The nuns managed to retain their commitment to teaching, however, by taking a fourth vow to educate young females.

The Ursulines arrived in Saint-Denis, just outside of Paris, in 1628. Eventually they raised funds to build a convent. The building, as it is today, is pictured below.

convent building

The prosperous convent quickly became “the most decorated bastiments and most populous of all this Mesme order who are in the diocese of Paris.”

The convent building had, at the time, extensive lands and was surrounded by gardens where the nuns grew vegetables for their table. The drawing below shows the convent grounds and the convent building in the upper center.

convent grounds

In the mid 17th century, King Louis XIV gave the convent “his special protection” and made concessions to the Order, particularly in terms of taxes. The Ursulines did not disappoint their monarch. They developed premier schools for young girls that rivaled those of the Jesuit colleges for boys. From 1639 onwards, when Marie de l’Incarnation set sail from France for Canada, the Ursuline convents of Europe spread to all continents. By 1700, they had over 350 convents located throughout France boarding 10-12,000 young girls and educating countless poor girls who might be day students.

For all my research, I could not find the precise ages of the girls who were boarded in the Ursuline Convent schools. It would seem they were young when they entered and some might have stayed for only a few years. Though some would marry very early, at least by age 15 or 16, all would have been considered adults and of marriageable age. At that time, their families would have brought them home. (The heroine in To Tame the Wind is allowed to stay longer by special arrangement.)

What did they teach?

The Ursulines taught their students that femininity was inextricable from piety. The schedule they adhered to gave the girls’ student life a certain rhythm meant to order their lives as women after they left the schoolrooms of the Ursulines.

Boarding students heard Mass daily with the nuns before breakfast, recited Marian litanies at midmorning and recited the Little Office of the Virgin before they went to bed. The Virgin punctuated the students’ daily prayer life; the Mass anchored it.

Ursuline nun and acolyte]
The nuns taught the girls how to examine their consciences and recount their faults to a confessor. The priest had the power of absolution, but it was the nuns who ensured that the sacrament of penance took place and was effective. In my novel, the heroine, Claire Donet has made a vow to a dying girl to become a nun and worries much about the penance she may be required to pay because of her feelings for the handsome Captain Simon Powell. But, as the Mother Superior taught Claire, the Ursulines believed that holiness was achieved not be retreating from the challenges of an imperfect world, but by going into that world and meeting those challenges armed with knowledge.

Since the convent schools in France were primarily for the daughters of the French nobility and the wealthy, the girls might have been taught some mathematics along with reading, writing, Bible instruction, needlework, art and music. Art would have included art appreciation, not just learning to draw and paint. Writing classes would focus on not only on the development of a graceful hand, but the proper forms of address and the proper construction of well thought out and effective letters.

At all times there would have been an emphasis on deportment, etiquette and the social graces. In the formal sense of education, this would have been extended to include development of menus, the proper way to set the table and other things a lady would be expected to know to run her own household. (At one point, the hero in my story is disappointed to learn the heroine cannot cook.)

What happened to the Ursulines?

In the 18th century, King Louis XV took a lively interest in Saint-Denis and added a chapel to the convent. With such patronage, the number of Ursuline convents in France grew to 400, and they continued to send missionary nuns to other countries. In 1771, the first Ursuline convent was established in Ireland where they taught boys of poor families as well as girls. It was also in this century the Ursulines came to America (you can still tour their convent building in New Orleans). 

King Louis XV
Louis XV
The influence of the Order in France continued into the late 18th century, at least until the French Revolution, when the nuns settled their debts and left the convent in 1792. During the Revolution, the French Ursulines valiantly tried to maintain their apostolate as long as they could and upheld it courageously and daringly, but suppressions and dispersions came nonetheless. Out of some 10,000 Ursulines living in France at that time, about 1,000 were jailed and 38 guillotined.

In the 19th century, the Ursulines reached Latin America, Africa, Asia and Australia. Their missionary zeal stemmed from a desire to make the Christian faith known and to teach young girls, and at times it was aided by the persecution they suffered, which forced them to leave Europe.

My research into the Ursulines has given me great respect for them.

To Tame the Wind

“A sea adventure like no other, a riveting romance!”


All Claire Donet knew was the world inside the convent walls in Saint-Denis. She had no idea her beloved papa was a pirate. But when he seized Simon Powell's schooner, the English privateer decided to take the one thing his enemy held most dear... her.


The waters between France and England roil with the clashes of Claire's father and her captor as the last year of the American Revolution rages on the sea, spies lurk in Paris and Claire’s passion for the English captain rises.

“Another exciting historical romance from Regan Walker”
            –NY Times Bestselling Author Virginia Henley

“A sea adventure like no other, a riveting romance!”
             – NY Times Bestselling Author Shirlee Busbee
  “Intrigue, adventure, and love, everything a romance reader wants in a great story."         — Written  Love Reviews

  “An adventurous, romantic and mysterious page turner from the gifted story teller Regan Walker. This action packed historical romance will grab you right from the beginning and keep you glued to the story to the very last word. You simply won't be able to put it down—another keeper!”                                                          — Tartan Book Reviews

  “I was hooked from the first page! Political intrigue, a bit of mystery and a beautifully developed romance that swept me from Paris to London and to the waters of the English Channel! Very, very, very well done!” – The Reading Cafe
  "From the opening sentence to the stirring climax…author Regan Walker delivers this breathtaking romance readers have come to expect. To Tame the Wind is a sweeping tale of love, war and passion."  --Amazon reviewer   

About the Author
Bestselling author Regan Walker loved to write stories as a child, particularly those about adventure-loving girls, but by the time she got to college more serious pursuits were encouraged. One of her professors suggested a career in law, and she took that path. Years of serving clients in private practice and several stints in high levels of government gave her a love of international travel and a feel for the demands of the “Crown.” Hence her romance novels often involve a demanding sovereign who taps his subjects for “special assignments.” Each of her novels features real history and real historic figures. And, of course, adventure and love.

Regan lives in San Diego with her golden retriever, Link, who she says inspires her every day to relax and smell the roses.

Written content of this post copyright © Regan Walker, 2015.


Sarah said...

Fascinating! I knew very little about the Ursulines. I knew St Ursula was the patron saint of female education, and allegedly was captured by pirates along with 900 virgins she was sailing with [I've always wondered how you got all those virgins on a ship of the time] and I have to say I love the parallel of having pirates mixed up with la petite Ursuline of the story. It's a neat irony!

Regan Walker said...

Thanks, Catherine, for having me on your lovely blog to talk about the Ursulines. I loved the Ursulines in my story--and so did my heroine!

Regan Walker said...

I'm so glad you liked the post, Sarah! Thanks for the interesting comment. There is a pirate in my story but it's the heroine's father!

RADay said...

I love reading about nuns and convents. Thanks for posting.

caroline Wrarfield said...

Wonderful peace, Regan and a new book on my TBR pile. People in our era woefully underestimate the toughness of nuns. Witness Marie de l’Incarnation heading to the wilds of Canada. The founded hospitals and schools all over North America (nuns in general, not just the Ursulines). What has struck me is the degree to which the created a world of women, run by women for women.

Cheryl Bolen said...

Thanks, Regan. I've always wondered about the Ursulines. There's still the convent building in New Orleans' French Quarter, and one of the French Quarter streets is named Ursuline. There was an Ursuline Academy on Galveston Island that was destroyed by Hurricane Carla in 1960. I believe it had formerly been a convent.

Regan Walker said...

Thanks for leaving your comment, RADay.

Regan Walker said...

I'm so glad you liked it, Caroline. I think you'll enjoy To Tame the Wind, too. The sisters are wonderful characters.

Regan Walker said...

Thanks, Cheryl. Yes, the Ursulines did go to the "New World" and other countries (Canada, Ireland, etc.) with their mission to teach young girls. An amazing legacy. And they are still having an effect today with their colleges and other institutions of learning.