Madame Marie Bernard Couvent was the founding benefactor of one of the oldest black Catholic schools in the United States.
Little is known about Couvent’s early life, but she was born in Guinea, West Africa and brought at a young age to Saint Domingue (today’s Haiti) as a slave. She was known early in life as Justine Fervin and received no formal education. At some point, Fervin was brought to New Orleans, eventually securing her freedom and calling herself Marie. By the 1820s she was living in the Faubourg Marigny district and had married a free black carpenter named Gabriel Bernard Couvent.
Couvent and her husband regularly attended mass at St. Louis Cathedral, where she established a friendship with Constantine Manehault, a priest who was to become her religious director. With no children to support, the Couvents lived comfortably and amassed substantial savings. They owned several properties around the city and a small number of slaves.
When Gabriel died in 1829, he left his considerable estate to Marie. On the advice of Father Manehault, she decided to use this wealth to establish a Catholic school for poor free-born orphans of color. In 1832, Couvent dictated a will, leaving her property at Grand Hommes (Dauphine) and Union (Touro) Streets to serve as school buildings for orphans of color in the Faubourg Marigny district. She further specified that Father Manehault should direct the school.
Couvent died in New Orleans five years later. Henry Fletcher, a free man of color, was named executor of her will. However, over the next few years he appeared uninterested in fulfilling those duties and the city showed no interest. After more than a decade of delays, Father Manehault decided the project could wait no longer and with the help of prominent New Orleans citizen François Lacroix assembled a lobbying group known as the Society for the Instruction of Indigent Orphans to pressure Fletcher and the city into action. Within months, the École des Orphelins de Couleur was opened.
Establishing a school for indigent people of color was a pioneering feat in antebellum Louisiana, where public and most private schools were restricted to white children. The school instructed students in English and French and also offered special Spanish courses. The Couvent School’s fortune waxed and waned after opening, surviving mostly on donations from wealthy parents and successful black locals. It boasted notable staff and alumni, including its principal Arman Lanusse, the first African American to compile an anthology of poetry, and alumnus Ernest N. Morial, the first African American mayor of New Orleans. The school operated under various names while keeping its same purpose until Hurricane Katrina forced its closure in 2006.
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