The College of Jefferson in Convent was founded in 1831 for the education of their children by a group of wealthy Louisianans of French ancestry. In 1931 the property was sold to a Jesuit order for use as a retreat house. Stuart Moore Lynn photographed Manresa House in 1941. Learn more »
The Manresa House of Retreats, a Jesuit retreat house for laymen, occupies the buildings and grounds of the former College of Jefferson. Located at Convent on the east bank of the Mississippi River, at the river’s midpoint between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Manresa is an idyllic setting for a religious retreat center, tucked away on lush, shady grounds amid a sparsely populated river town. The college that originally occupied the site was founded in 1831 by a group of wealthy Louisianans of French ancestry for the education of their children.
When Governor André Roman signed legislation incorporating the college, he described it as “an institution … where our children will find the means of completing their course of studies without leaving their native land” to study in schools from which they were likely to “return completely strangers to our manners, to our customs, and above all to our climate.” Construction of the school was financed by private subscription, although the state legislature later provided some subsidies. The first buildings were completed in 1833, classes began in 1834, and a year later sixty-two students were enrolled. Classes were given in French and in English on alternating days. In 1842 a fire destroyed almost all of the buildings, and although they were rebuilt immediately, the college never fully recovered and was sold in 1848. In 1853 Professor Louis Dufau purchased the college, reorganizing it as the Louisiana College. After it failed again, planter Valcour Aimé purchased the site in 1859, perhaps building the Gothic Revival chapel in memory of his children at that time, or possibly in 1865, the year after he donated the college to the Marists (Society of Mary). They renamed it St. Mary’s Jefferson College and operated it until 1927; in 1931 they sold it to the Jesuits (Society of Jesus), who opened the retreat house.
Two small temple-like gatehouses with Doric porticoes mark the entrance to the complex. Built in 1836, they are two of the three structures that survived the fire of 1842; the two-story Greek Revival president’s house is the other. According to architect and historian Samuel Wilson, it is possible that Joseph Pilié, a New Orleans architect and surveyor, designed these buildings, given that he probably was responsible for Oak Alley, then under construction on the other side of the river. Jefferson College’s main building, the great colonnaded structure that faces the road, was erected after the fire and probably completed in 1843. The facade is composed of twenty-two giant columns, a projecting pedimented portico-like center section, and a second-floor gallery. Although the building appears to have only two stories, a third story is concealed behind the massive entablature and parapet. No record has been found of the architect who designed it, but Wilson noted that the curved connections between the central portico and the flanking colonnades are similar to those in the work of James Gallier Jr. Wilson suggested that Gallier might have designed the Gothic Revival chapel, which he dated to 1865 based on its similarities with some Gallier drawings for an unidentified chapel. This picturesque little structure has tall pinnacles on its portico and side buttresses. Both the Marists and the Jesuits added buildings to the complex during the twentieth century.
Adapted from Karen Kingsley’s Buildings of Louisiana, part of the Buildings of the United States series commissioned by the Society of Architectural Historians (www.sah.org) and published by Oxford University Press.
Cite This Entry
Chicago Manual of Style
Kingsley, Karen. "Manresa House of Retreats." In KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–. Article published October 14, 2014. http://www.knowla.org/entry/1768/&view=summary.
Kingsley, Karen. "Manresa House of Retreats." KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana. Ed. David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 14 Oct 2014. Web. 17 Jan. 2017.
Would you like to learn more about this topic from books and other reading materials?
Kingsley, Karen. Buildings of Louisiana. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.