Forget tales of America being founded by brawny, brave, tough guys in buckskin and beards. The real pioneers—at least, in Louisiana—were well-educated Frenchwomen clad in 40 pounds of black wool robes. That’s right; you don’t know tough until you know the Ursuline nuns, and this city would have been a very different place without them.

The Sisters of Ursula came to the mudhole that was New Orleans in 1727 after a journey that nearly saw them lost at sea or succumbing to pirates or disease. Here, they provided the first decent medical care (saving countless lives) and later founded the first local school and orphanage for girls. They also helped raise girls shipped over from France as marriage material for local men, teaching them everything from languages to homemaking of the most exacting sort (laying the foundation of many local families).

The convent dates from 1752 (the sisters themselves moved uptown in 1824, where they remain to this day), and it is the oldest building in the Mississippi River Valley and the only surviving building from the French colonial period in the United States. It also houses Catholic archives dating back to 1718.

The self-guided tour of the convent shows rooms typical of the era, as well as religious and artistic icons (the top floor, where a ghost supposedly lives, is off-limits, unfortunately). It includes access to St. Mary’s Church, original site of the Ursuline convent and a former archbishop’s residence. The whole convent can be viewed in an hour or less.