Thursday, June 29, 2006

In the Brown Zone with Mother Cabrini

St. Francis Cabrini Church, Paris Avenue, New Orleans

Put your nose up to the door, I told my daughter, and take a good sniff. This I tell her is what Katrina smelled like, what the whole city smelled like, in the days after. We were peering through the locked doors into the nave of St. Francis Cabrini Catholic Church, in the Vista Park section of Gentilly along Paris Avenue.

The interior of the church was a ruin of piled pews in the nave, as if prepared for a bonfire, in front of the dramatic sanctuary beneath its flying buttresses. The photograph is taken through thick leaded glass I was tempted to break for a better view, given that the Archdiocese could clearly care less. I was only stopped by the thought of all the Humvees full of National Guard I had seen on Robert E. Lee. There was no sign of them here on Paris Avenue, no sign of life at all, but something stayed my hand.

The nave and sanctuary of Cabrini

My father designed this church. I recall standing as a very small child in the back and watching him climb perhaps fifty feet of scaffolding to reach the top of the buttresses to inspect some work. To a very small child it seemed as if he had ascended the very ramparts of heaven to consult with God about the progress of the work on His house. It is one of the most vivid memories of my childhood, one I can call up clearly at any time.

My reverie is interrupted again by the smell as I press my eye to a window close to the crack in the door. Smell, I tell my own child, smell this. Remember this smell, remember what happened to your new home, to the church your grandfather built, remember it as clearly as I remember your grandfather at the gates of heaven so you can tell your own children some day.

So much of the city is still in danger of being reduced to memory. Sidney J. Folse, Jr., A.I.A. was a prominent architect, a president of the New Orleans Chapter of the A.I.A. at the height of the battle of the Riverfront Expressway. He designed the Rivergate, and I marveled at the model of the Superdome that was central to his office at Curtis & Davis on Canal Street in the 1960s.

The Rivergate is gone, replaced by Harrah's. Beneath it somewhere is no doubt the tunnel dug for the the riverfront expressway to cross Canal, the expressway my father helped to prevent. Given the life cycle of stadiums, it is certain that within my lifetime the Superdome will be reduced to a memory. There will be so little left of my father in this city soon, only the memories of people who knew him, and with each passing year there are fewer to recall his name over a drink or a meal in the way Orleanians invoke our ancestors, with some fond anecdote at the table.

Most of what he built was commercial and only interesting to people who paid for his services. Through an odd turn of career, he became the nation's leading expert on Corrections Architecture, building jails and prisons and courthouses all across the nation, all because one of his first jobs was to draw the Barracks at Angola Prison, an infamous place where prisoners preyed upon the weaker among them.

I believe he spent the rest of his life in a form of atonement for the Barracks. He voted Republican because Republicans built jails, but the facilities he proposed and built were humane and decent, designed to respect the remaining dignity of the prisoner lest they become like rats in a basement.

The only things that will remain in New Orleans from the hand of one of its prominent architects of the 20th Century will be a starkly modern house at 17 Egret Street in Lake Vista, just small enough in square footage to be itself at risk as a tear down in the land of McMansions, and this church.

Ten months after the flood the church shows no sign of any remediation what so ever. The smell is enough to know. The Archdiocese has apparently locked it and left it to rot, the pews piled up like coffins in the oven of a raised tomb. Perhaps they plan to return in a year and sweep the remains into the drawer just as we clean out our family tombs, to make way for the new.

Or perhaps the bulldozers will come, if the neighborhood remains as it appears today, as still and silent and monochrome as a New Orleans cemetery on a hot August afternoon. Someone righted the toppled Virgin behind the church, and placed a small offering of artificial blooms in each of the urns that flanked the statue. Someone has come back, if only for an afternoon. But as I sweep the open ground behind the church and school, the blocks of homes, I don't see them. I don't see anyone.

St. Francis Xavier Cabrini outside the church's rectory

Today, Mother Cabrini stands water stained near the impending ruin that bears her name, a fitting monument to the first American saint in a town thick with saints but abandoned by America, in a neighborhood where the homogeneous brown silence of the flood seems little changed since September, in a place where the water stood so high there are no rescue marks on the front of homes; instead, stroked zeros are marked on the roofs, to show aircraft where homes were searched.

I read Vista Park homeowner Tim's Nameless Blog regularly. I know that people are coming back to the neighborhood that stands across Paris Avenue. Today, I don't see them, even as a few blocks away Tim wrestles a push mower around Pratt Park and other neighbors work to bring the place they called home back from the disaster that stands in stark silence all around me.

If these places are saved, it will not be through the New Orleans Recreation Department saving Pratt Park or the Archdiocese of New Orleans saving Cabrini. It won't be the city or the Corps or even the grace of God. New Orleans will be saved only because people who love these places, this city, insist on saving them. They will do it on their own, whatever it takes. They are the descendants of the immigrants Mother Cabrini ministered to here, people who were not afraid go to into the unknown, into the heat and the funk of this place called New Orleans and make it their home. Their great grand children will do it again.

Mother Cabrini, pray for them.

That was a fabulous post, Markus. I recall being majorly po'd when the Rivergate was torn down to make way for that atrocity.
I'm stunned that Cabrini church still looks like that.

Really great post, sir.
Posted with soul.
Ok, covingtongirl, now I'm curious. Drop me a line to, as I'm curious to know who your dad was.

Wonderful post. Done from the heart, and indicative of what's happening to our city.

We are now coming to the time when we MUST FIGHT BACK. To reclaim our lives and our city.
A fabulous, fabulous post!

You are correct that the majority of my drowned neighborhood remains vacant and decaying. I try to focus a spotlight on the good things, spotty as they may be. I do this for my own sanity, and to try to tell people there is hope.

I'm not religious, but I've been to Cabrini church several times. A beautiful structure, and a credit to the neighborhood. Sadly and I think rather selfishly, the archdiocese quickly abandoned several historic churches without a plan to sell or reuse the buildings and property. They're just letting them rot.

There is a rumor that Holy Cross High School might move to that location. Just a rumor, but one I rather hope turns out to be true.

Two interesting items about the steeple shown in your photo: the steeple stood so tall and was so recognizable that it was an official landmark listed by the National Geodetic Survey as a horizonal benchmark. It also shows up on charts used by aviators. And, the cross at the very top was not damaged by Katrina, but was actually damaged weeks earlier by Hurricane Cindy.

Peace to you and yours,

Tim, I think I too often focus on the bleak, but I've taken on a mission of sorts to let people know that We Are Not OK. Still, in my post about the Triangle of Death, I've tried to point out that I'm not here out of a sense of the morbid, but out of a sense of hope. I have already email the archciodese to ask their intention for Cabrini, and to ask to be admited to photograh it in its current state, and to be able to look at any archival photographs of it pre-K they may have. I consider my father a prominent New Orleanian, and I will see either the Egret House or Cabrini razed over my dead body.
The Archdicese has continued to screw the pooch over these past 10 months. Yet another example.
Made me cry. Really, really beautiful. Thanks.
Lovely post. Fight them hard.
Hmmm, "my twin or brother". That *ought* to be enough for me to figure out who you are, but its awfully early and the coffee isn't done brewing yet.
Very moving post. Thanks for sharing your memories and your father's legacy with us.
I gotta point out about that Virgin - she's got the right waterlines, so she didn't get knocked over.

A cousin of mine is one of the Sisters of Mt. Carmel, and all of their statues stood up fine, too.
The virgin stands behind the church, up the small drive that leads up to the back of the rectory. The statue in front is of Mother Cabrini.
We were able to return our street cars to Canal Street but the Rivergate is forever lost. And such a gem. It still brings to mind that yearning of a futuristic design as does the 57 Chevy Bellaire did back in its day.

Your father was not an architect, lots of them around...he was an (Art)chitect.

Great post.
Hi Markus,

Thanks for that post it was great.My parents renewed their marriage vows at the Cabrini Church.I went to Bienville when I was a child.Recently I went to visit New Orleans and saw the church.I got this feeling inside and took a picture of the church.I can't believe that nothing has been done to fix it.Once again thanks for the great post.
I happened upon your site while searching for pictures of "my" Church. Your dad truly made a "home" for many of us Cabrini parishoners. We are still celebrating mass together as a parish and will always hold our church close to our hearts. Thank you for your blog. If you're able to post any pictures pre-hurricane that would be greatly appreciated as I no longer have them. Thanks, Jeannine
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"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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