Northwestern State University’s Student Government Association unveiled a portrait of the school’s campus ghost Thursday, Halloween day. The painting of Isabella, the spirit which according to legend has inhabited the campus since the Civil War era, was created by Camilo Mantilla, a graduate student from Cienfuegos, Cuba, who is pursuing a master’s degree in fine art at NSU. The painting will hang in the Sylvan Friedman Student Union.
Isabella is a beloved fixture at Northwestern who bridges the early history of the campus when it was the site of the Academy of the Sacred Heart to the modern day, according to SGA President Jacob Ellis of Athens.
“The legend of Isabella has been with us since the first students arrived at what was then the Louisiana State Normal School. From whispers in late night dormitory rooms to now having students chase her across campus to celebrate Halloween, the spirit of our campus ghost has grown and developed along with our students,” Ellis said.
Ellis said the SGA was intentional in creating a likeness of Isabella in a way that did not reduce one of NSU’s oldest traditions to a cartoon or caricature.
“We wanted to ensure that she was portrayed as a real person of her era and vocation, a Civil War-era nun of the Convent of the Sacred Heart,” Ellis said.
Prior to NSU’s establishment as the Louisiana State Normal School in 1884, the site of the campus was home to the Bullard family and a mansion the family completed in 1832. In 1850, the property was acquired by Bishop Auguste Martin who ceded the buildings and acreage to the Academy of the Sacred Heart for an expanded school and convent. The Academy operated for several years until declining enrollment in post-Civil War years forced its closure in 1875.
Isabella, according to legend, has occupied the campus’s oldest buildings since the days of the Sacred Heart Academy, moving locations as buildings burned or were torn down. When Caldwell Hall burned in 1982, more than 750 students gathered on Halloween night and performed a ceremony to aid Isabella in her transition to the Old Women’s Gymnasium, now home to the National Center of Preservation Technology and Training. But some sightings have been reported around Varnado Hall and the three columns on Normal Hill that are all that remain of the Bullard mansion.
Mantilla depicted Isabella in her convent robes in a ghostly hue, lonely and saddened at the loss of her lover, in the style of the era in which she lived and died. Caldwell Hall, her long-time home, burns brightly in the background.
Ellis said he hopes the portrait will also serve as a reminder for those who feel hopeless or alone to seek help.
“Isabella may invoke a bit of fright from time to time but she is overwhelmingly viewed by the NSU family as a spirit who watches, welcomes and helps preserve Northwestern’s rich history,” he said. “We hope this portrait is an appropriate to honor her and share her story with current and future Demons.”
NSU’s SGA initiated the portrait program last year in collaboration with Marcus Jones, vice president of University and Business Affairs, to ensure that buildings and prominent spaces named after individuals features a portrait of that person and highlights individuals who made significant contributions to the university, particularly women and people of color. Isabella is the third portrait unveiled, joining those of Dr. Randall J. Webb and Joe Delaney. The program also highlights the talents of student artists and alumni with the works commissioned to artists who are current or former students.
Pictured above: A portrait of Isabella, Northwestern State University’s legendary ghost, was unveiled on Halloween Day by SGA President Jacob Ellis, left, and graduate student artist Camilo Mantilla. The portrait will hang in the Sylvan Friedman Student Union.