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Marie Bernard Couvent

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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Online Resources

“Couvent, Marie Bernard” in African American National Biography

“Couvent, Madame Bernard” in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition

“Lanusse, Armand” in African American National Biography

“Morial, Ernest Nathan ‘Dutch’” in African American National Biography

Bibliography

Bell, Richard J.. "Couvent, Marie Bernard." African American National Biography, edited by Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr.. , edited by and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. . Oxford African American Studies Center, http://www.oxfordaasc.com/article/opr/t0001/e1363 (accessed Thu Sep 05 12:00:01 EDT 2019).
 

Desdunes, Rodolphe Lucien. Our People and Our History: Fifty Creole Portraits. Translated and edited by Sister Dorothea Olga McCants. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001.


Hine, Darlene Clark, ed. Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Black Women Writers Series. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Pub., 1993.


Logan, Rayford W., and Michael R. Winston, eds. Dictionary of American Negro Biography. New York: Norton, 1982.

Adapted by

James Almeida and Steven J. Niven

Contributing Institutions

Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center.

Key Events

c. 1757

Born in the Guinea region of West Africa. Known early on as Justine Fervin, she is enslaved at a young age and taken first to Saint Domingue and later New Orleans.

1820s

Fervin has taken the name Marie, obtained her freedom, and established a prosperous life with her husband, free black carpenter Gabriel Bernard Couvent. They live in the Faubourg Marigny district, are devoted attendees at the St. Louis Cathedral, and have established a relationship with the priest Constantine Manehault.

May 22, 1829

Gabriel dies at the age of seventy-one, leaving Marie as his sole heir.

1832

At the suggestion of Father Manehault, Couvent dictates a will signifying her intent to establish a school for poor children of color using her properties at what is today Dauphine and Touro Streets.

June 29, 1837

Couvent dies at age eighty and is buried in the St. Louis Cemetery near the donated properties.

1848

Father Manehault and François Lacroix form the Society for the Instruction of Indigent Orphans to pressure the executor of Couvent’s estate into settling and thus allowing them to move forward with the school. Within months, the school is opened as the École des Orphelins de Couleur.

2006

Hurricane Katrina forced the closure of the school in 2006.