|“The Will Of The Widow Couvent”
Keith Weldon Medley
"My name is Marie Justine Cirnaire. I was born in Guinea. When I was perhaps seven years of age I was carried to St. Domingue [Haiti]. I am as a result not aware of the name of my father or my mother, nor do I know my age. I was married to Bernard Couvent, free Negro, whose widow I now am. We have had no children...”
"I bequeath and order that my land at the corner of Grand Hommes and Union Streets [Dauphine and Touro] be dedicated and used in perpetuity for the establishment of a free school for the colored orphans of the faubourg Marigny... Also, I declare that said lands and buildings shall never be sold under any pretext whatsoever."
From the 1837 Last Will and Testament of
Madame Marie C. Couvent
Native of West Africa
Free Woman of Color
On February, 27, 1999, at 11:00 a.m., students of Bishop Perry Middle School in faubourg Marigny and members of the Friends of New Orleans Cemeteries will lead a musical procession from the school to St. Louis Cemetry #2 to visit the restored tomb of the school’s foundress, Marie C. Couvent. Though Madame Couvent died over 160 years ago, her life, death, and legacy manifest themselves in a series of schools at Touro and Dauphine Streets.
Marie C. Couvent was born in West Africa in the middle of the 1700’s. Before being old enough to learn her family name, she was taken across the Atlantic to Haiti, and subsequently to New Orleans She later married Bernard Couvent, a free person of color, who New Orleans Architecture Volume IV: The Creole Faubourgs listed among the more known “early builders” of “some of the more interesting houses”. People described Madame Couvent as a pious and charitable soul.
Bernard Couvent preceded Marie in death. Childless and unable to read or write, the widow consulted Father Constantine Maenhault at St. Louis Cathedral to dictate her wishes for disposition of the Couvent properties. On June 29, 1837, at an approximate age of 80, Marie C. Couvent passed away. Her final journey brought her body from a funeral at the Cathedral to St. Louis Cemetery #2, which was then a fourteen year old grave yard. Her tomb lay just outside the city proper and an ocean away from her birthplace. The inscription reads “ici repose M. BERNARD COUVENT native d’Afrique”.
Madame Couvent’s will directed her property be used to provide free education for the “colored orphans” of the faubourg Marigny, many left without parents due to yearly plagues of yellow fever. She also left rental property as income for school upkeep. On April 20, 1847, Marigny developer Francois Lacroix and a group of free people of color received a state charter to fulfill Madame Couvent’s will. Soon, children began classes on property that Louisiana Historical Quarterly called the “first free school opened for colored children in the United States.”...
In short time, the Board of Directors erected a school building on the site. Harper’s Magazine visited in 1866 and reported favorably on its instruction methods, writing samples, math skills, and decorum. Tuition was free for orphans, twenty-five cents for half-orphans, and fifty cents for others. Classes were taught in French and English and the school provided paper, pencils, and books. All the teachers were of African descent, some educated in France or St. Domingue. The school’s faculty had a strong literary bend. School principal Armand Lanusse compiled a French language poetry anthology called Les Cenelles, the first poetry anthology by people of color in the United States. Other teachers were poets, writers, dramatists, and mathematicians. Paul Trevigne, editor of L’Union, taught there for forty years.
School and civic leaders at the Catholic School for Indigent Orphans in the nineteenth and twentieth century honored Madame Couvent’s memory. Lanusse instituted a yearly celebration and Mass in her honor. Additionally, students made All Saints Day pilgrimages to her grave site while the school’s Board of Directors assumed responsibility for the upkeep of her tomb. Couvent later became the first native of Africa to have an Orleans Parish school named for her.
In the 1890’s, the school’s Board of Directors president Arthur Esteves and several of its members waged a legal fight against segregated railroad cars that led to the famous United States Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson. Also in the 1890’s, in the spirit of Marie C. Couvent, civic leaders Aristide Mary and Thomy Lafon left money and property in their wills to construct a new building that contained several classrooms, a large center hall, and a high basement. This school fell victim to the 1915 hurricane that completely leveled the structure.
As part of its continuing tenacity, the school resurrected in still a third building as St. Louis School, named after the brother of Mother Katherine Drexel of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament who donated funds for the rebuilding. Board of Directors member Louis Charbonnet, a Millwright Supervisor and Eerecting Engineer, supervised construction of the two-story four-bay structure with its second story front porch overlooking Dauphine. As a historic note, the first Black mayor of New Orleans, Ernest N. "Dutch" Morial, attended Holy Redeemer in this building.
The current edifice opened in 1956 as the fourth school building on the site. In the 1990’s, decreases in attendance closed Holy Redeemer. In 1995, the Society of St. Edmund saved the Couvent dream from extinction when they established Bishop Perry Middle School as a school primarily aimed at the academic development of young African American males. The school’s Director of Development, Beverly Kilbourne, expresses wonderment and appreciation at the school’s history and the support of the Marigny community.
On February 27, 1999, at 11:00 a.m., New Orleanians will pay their respects to Marie Justine Cirnaire. In the more than 160 years since her interment in a humble stepped-top tomb in the main aisle of Square #3 of St. Louis #2, many other notables have come to this historic resting place including teachers and members of the Board of Director of the old Catholic School for Indigent Orphans. But over the years, the Widow Couvent’s tomb has fallen into disrepair. Bricks broke through the plaster, and even her headstone dislodged from its moorings. Thanks to the Friends of the New Orleans Cemeteries, her tomb is now restored. Thanks to the students and staff of Bishop Perry Middle School, her wishes live on as well.