Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Cathedral of the Lakefront

[Updated 11-12-06]

"A striking modern structure, the church . . . was called the "Cathedral of
the Lakefront" when it was dedicated by Archbishop John P. Cody [in 1963]. In
blessing the church, he told the congregation that many times he knelt in St.
Peter's in Rome during the Second Vatican Council his mind wandered across the
sea and wonder how the church would look when complete."
-- Father Paul Desroseirs
Pastor, St. Frances X. Cabrini Church
From the parish's 50th anniversary program

A landmark piece of modern architecture in a city that usually celebrates its historic roots, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church in the Gentilly section of New Orleans is facing imminent demolition under circumstances Tulane University architecture professor Steve Verdeber and some parishioners suggest are suspicious.

At a meeting in Cabrini's windswept parking lot on Nov. 11, just outside the red ribbons that marked a keep out zone where workers removed asbestos from the building in preparation for demolition, the architect and others questioned the manner in which the Archdiocese of New Orleans and Holy Cross School obtained the rights to demolish the property. Holy Cross plans to build a new campus at the Gentilly site to replace their flood damaged Ninth Ward home.

According to parishioners, a meeting held earlier this year to discuss the churches fate had no agenda listing potential transfer of the church, which is owned building and property by the parish, to the archdiocese for demolition. Several people who attended the parish meeting left before the issue was raised and a vote was taken, unaware that the question was even scheduled. They said the meeting did not represent the wishes of the majority of parishioners.

Verdeber and active parishioner David Villarrubia spent part of last week at City Hall researching how a demolition permit was issued in the name of the demolition company. There was no indication on the paperwork who was the client that requested demolition. The permit fee was paid by the demolition company. Verdeber and Villarrubia are working with an attorney to try to stay the questionable demolition, starting from the fact that it is not clear that either the archdiocese or Holy Cross School has any legal authority to demolish the parish's property.

Both indicated there was no desire to prevent Holy Cross School from coming. Only to have a dialogue about the future of the architecturally significant church building on the two-city-block square property. In an earlier Times-Picayune article, a spokesman for Holy Cross suggested it was too large to be of any use to the school, but parishioners on Saturday pointed out that Holy Cross routinely used it for ring masses and other ceremonies, and that virtually all of the Catholic high schools in the city used either Cabrini or St. Dominic for such events because they were the only churches large enough to accommodate them.

Some parishioners complained of the treatment of the valuable contents of the church. The altar, a large single-piece of marble imported from Italy, was dropped during its removal from the church and broken. Mosaics that decorated the church were seen broken and in pieces, and the church vestments were found tossed into a trash pile where they were rescued by a parishioner.

Villarrubia said they were unable to determine the disposition of other removed contents of the church, including the striking wooden carving of Jesus that graced the alter. The archdiocese had promised all of those contents would be returned to the parish, which to me would indicate they recognize the archdiocese tenuous claims on the property.

The church was apparently the only one in the archdiocese to carry flood insurance, and it was suggested that the money might be diverted by the archdiocese if the church was demolished. Verdeber and Villarrubia suggested that the insurance proceeds were sufficient to pay for a full restoration of the church.

The meeting broke up after one parishioner read from St. Francis Xavier Cabrini's life story from a book of saints while another distributed cards bearing a likeness of the saint on one side and a prayer to her on the other. Another parishioner led the group in the prayer for intercession from the card, with an elderly resident in loudly offering "save our church" when the prayer reached the "intercede for us that the favor we now ask may be granted".

[Below is the original post of Nov. 11, 2006:]
I have written before about Cabrini Church, a signature example of modern architecture in New Orleans by the same architects and engineers that built the Rivergate. Among those architects was my father, who was project architect for both buildings.

My attachment is certainly in part sentimental. The building is not a classic piece of New Orleans architecture and is less than fifty years old. Still, I wonder what perservationists fifty or one hundred years from now will think of us for demolishing such architectural landmarks of the 20th Century as this church and the Rivergate. The building was given an award by the Church Architectural Guild of America in 1962. Even the school plant, also by Curtis and Davis Architects, was given an Award of Merit by the American Institute of Architects in 1952. The same architect and engineer who crafted the flowing roof of the Rivergate designed and built the striking roof and interior buttresses of Cabrini. While not yet historic, it is clearly architecturally significant.

The church was inundated like all of Gentilly in the Federal Flood, then left unremediated by the Archdiocese of New Orleans in what can only be an act of deliberate demolition by neglect. Earlier this year, the badly flooded Holy Cross High School in the Ninth Ward announced it would locate out of that neighborhood, and narrowed its choices for a new site to that of Cabrini church and school, and a parcel of land in suburban Kenner, La.

I think everyone committed to New Orleans was pleased to learn that they elected to remain in the city, choosing the Cabrini site on Paris Avenue near the lakefront. However, as part of the arrangement, the entire campus is to be demolished to make way for a "new, state-of-the-art school," according to Bill Chauvin, chairman of Holy Cross' governing board.

Three members of the Historic District Landmark Commission voted this week for a study of the value of the church as historic landmark, a largely symbolic move as a permit for demolition has already been issued. People who have visited the site report that crews are now removing asbestos, and that once their works is completed demolition will begin, sometime the week of Nov. 13th.

"We had two choices,"Chauvin said, referring to a site offered Holy Cross in Kenner. "Had we known of this concern, it may have impacted the board's decision." Chauvin said the Holy Cross governing board looked at the feasibility of retaining the church "but it just didn't work."

An architect at Tulane University disagrees, Steven Verdeber, and is looking into stopping the demolition. He suggests that a building of this size could easily be incorporated into a site the size of Cabrini, which covers four city blocks.

Chauvin suggests its inappropriate to raise this issue at this time, after what he termed "an open and transparent process." But an earlier report I had (I am searching right now for the original email if it was in fact an email and not a blog comment) suggests that the decision to abandon the church was the opposite. In the early days after Katrina, a poorly noticed and attended meeting of a handful of parishioners met at St. Pius the X Church in nearby Lake Vista and agreed to the Archdiocese decision to abandon the site.

Verdeber is searching for an attorney to block the demolition, but I don't know that he has enough time. Cabrini will join the scores of landmark buildings great and small being demolished helter-skelter in the post-Flood city.

parishioners and friends of Cabrini will gather on Saturday at the church at 1 pm this Saturday, Nov. 11, to celebrate the feast day of St. Frances X. Cabrini and to say goodbye to the church. (The actual feast day is Monday, Nov. 13). A few days later, another signature building from New Orleans' pre-flood profile will be gone.

Some photos of the church in its pre-Flood glory can be found here on under the tag Gentilly and Cabrini. My original post on the church, In The Brown Zone with Mother Cabrini, can be found here, and a reading of the post for the WTUL-FM program Community Gumbo can be found here.

Nice work, I hope the demolition of Cabrini reminds people that we should be protecting our cultural assets.

And the Archdiocese should be a partner in this Community.
I grew up in the Cabrini neighborhood and started Cabrini grammar school in the second grade when it first opened in 1953. I remember when the "modern" and then controversial church was built, replacing the military quonset huts that had served as the church for the fast growing parish. Cabrini quickly became the largest and among the most prosperous of the new parishes of the 1950s. It is sad to see it come to this end.
I pass the church often. I live nearby and think Holy Cross will be a great addition to the neighborhood, possibly saving it.

It is sad that the beauty and vision of Cabrini will be gone.

We have build very little worthwhile modern architecture in New Orleans and its a shame to see the best of it being demolished first.
I'm between a rock and a hard place on this one. Our Association fought hard to keep Holy Cross in the Parish. I am also personally adverse to the destruction of historical or neighborhood-focus structures.

The Archdiocese is the bad egg in this equation in that they let the cathedral decay post-Deluge and they cut the deal for Holy Cross to move in. Holy Cross dealt in good faith and never hid their plans for a new complex there.

Sadly, the city will see the loss of many distinctive structures during the rebuilding of the city. Many landholders here do not care for the properties they hold, and without early intervention by us locals, the fate of the Cathedral of the Lakefront will be an oft repeated scenario here.

Very sad...
Another great post, Mark. I am sorry to see this happening, but, if they're already removing the asbestos, I can't imagine that the demolition can be stopped. I, not being a New Orleanian, would never have known anything about these two beautiful buildings, but for you. Thank you. The article you linked about Rivergate was riveting. How terrible that it was not saved. It's so sad that these two amazing structures will soon both be lost. My heartfelt condolences.
First, let me disclose that as a Holy Cross alumnus and father of two current HC students, and a Gentilly resident, I'm not going to try to kid anyone--I am THRILLED that the Board chose the Cabrini/Redeemer-Seton site rather than Kenner. I'd like to point out, however, that I attended the meeting at St. Pius at which HC made it's pitch to the Cabrini parishioners who were present. During the initial Q & A with representatives of the Archdiocese (before the HC presentation), a woman who identified herself as being the member of the parish council who handled the parish's financial matters before Katrina stated that for all it's architectural significance the church building had in essence become a "money pit". Her contention was that between ongoing maintenance costs (related to the building's singular design and roof) and the tremendous energy costs for air conditioning and heating, the building was burning through thousands of dollars a month out of the parish's budget. While the parish was thriving and (relative to many other parishes in the City) fairly wealthy, it was basically an issue of "what other good things they could have been doing with that money"; now, however, with the parish in the situation it's now in (like so many others, including my own, sort of stuck in a "stasis" waiting to see what happens in the next few years), it seemed her opinion that the building was a luxury that there was no longer a ready supply of money with which to afford it.

There's been a lot of talk, mainly in the last few weeks, that HC should incorporate the church building into their plans in order to save it. I can say that, looking at how large the actual footprint of the building itself is, I can imagine it being difficult to accomodate and still squeeze in all of the other features the school has on the drawing board which it feels it needs to be competitive in the private school "market" in the new New Orleans. Not to mention the costs to retrofit the building for an alternative purpose as compared to the costs for new construction to serve the same purpose.
One interesting fact I learned on Saturday was that Cabrini was often used by Holy Cross for ring mass and other large events, as it at St. Dominic were the only two churches large enough to accomodate such gatherings.

And I have to wonder what the difference was between heating and cooling a space like Cabrini's compared to similar designs and sizes. Both Pius and the tall, glass Methodist church in Lake Vista come to mind, as does the cavernour space of St. Dominic.

I would think that just about any church not built like a hotel banquet room would suffer from the same heating and cooling requirments.

I think its not fair to suggest that Holy Cross couldn't fit into two square city blocks and still accomodate the church. I think in particular the rumour of Saturday that the intent to build a football stadium on the site might impact the neighborhoods opinion about the future of the church site.
Holy Cross currently sits on approx. 20 acres on it's Ninth Ward campus, or about five city blocks. The Cabrini/Redeemer-Seton combined site is slightly under 18 acres. Holy Cross is not an archdiocesan school, but a private institution that falls under but is not funded by the Congregation of the Holy Cross, and therefore cannot be run at a loss. There is no subsidy as with public schools (and before I get labeled a "public school system hater", both I and both of my sons attended NO Public Schools through sixth grade, and were very well prepared to move on, thank you very much....). Holy Cross must compete for students with the Brother Martins, the St. Augs, and the Rummels of metro New Orleans, and as such must offer their students similar (hopefully, better) curriculum, faculty & staff, and physical plant as the competing schools.

Just for comparisons sake, Brother Martin, Rummel, and St. Aug all appear to sit on about four city blocks worth of land...without a Cabrini sized "church" on the property.
My children do attend Lusher and Franklin, but I am De la Salle '75 and CBS before that (and Pius before that).

But De la Salle and Jesuit both have campuses about the size of Cabrini and that doesn't seem to impede their ability to complete (although De la Salle is trying to demolish an historic building on their site, Peck Hall)

I am conflicted about the trade off between keeping Holy Cross in town and saving the Parish. But if Holy Cross feels like they don't have to talk to us, then we should reply in kind.
You'll not get an argument from me over whether or not we should be saving our cultural assets...only an argument as to whether or not that particular building is such a cultural asset that should be preserved at all costs. And who exactly is the all-important "us" that HC won't talk to?

Jesuit has to bus it's football team to City Park (at least they used City Park Pre-K) in order to hold some of their practices because of a lack of open playing fields...and their campus covers over two city blocks. I'm sure if they'd known back in 1926 when they moved from the CBD to Carrollton and Banks (in order to secure a larger footprint for their school) that even larger campuses with room for expansion and larger athletic facilities would become the norm for schools of their type that they would have bought and razed another block's worth of New Orleans shotguns. And as a long-time New Orleanian probably familiar with the history of education (not to mention politics and business) in the city, particularly one who attended Christian Brothers, I'm sure you know that Jesuit is a poor example to use when talking about the ability to "compete" for students.

In the case of De La Salle (which of course you would be even more familiar with than I) you have a school which opened around 1950 and as of the time when you were there had an enrollment large enough to be competing in athletics in the state's highest classification. You're undoubtedly more versed in what the reasons were for the school's declining enrollment than I, and it would only be speculation on my part that an inability to expand to add some of the amenities that the other schools it was competing for students with were beginning to offer. I do remember that the enrollment had declined so far by the early '90s that De La Salle then went co-ed in an effort to boost it.

Holy Cross was always blessed with having a large enough campus in the Ninth Ward such that it had room to accomodate whatever uses it determined necessary at the time. When I first went there (I was class of '77) the school still had a small number of boarders, mostly from Latin America, so it was still using part of the large student dormitory it had built for that purpose...but the school was already beginning to have enrollment problems of it's own such that it added 5th and 6th grades then. But even then the school had a major problem--a large percentage of parents from the metro area just wouldn't send their sons to the Lower Ninth Ward to be educated. Although starting in the '70s while I was there HC had explored buying property elsewhere in order to move (at that time it was land along Bullard in NO East), the pull of it's traditional campus was such that at the time of Katrina the school had plans for a large building expansion in hopes that it would help reverse a slowly declining enrollment. And you know, as De La Salle found in the '80s, if a private school for whatever reason begins to have problems getting it's "share" of a desired student population and begins losing those students to it's competing schools, it doesn't always immediately show up as a drop in enrollment; often the school will "expand" the population of students it accepts in one way or another. It may have to lower it's admission standards to stay at the same enrollment...which eventually turns into a self-perpetuating situation whereby the lower academic standards make the school even less attractive.

HC had found itself in just such a spot Pre-K; it's location was becoming an increasingly heavy albatross around it's neck as it tried to recruit families who were more and more choosing Brother Martin (if they wanted a school in Orleans) or Rummel (if they lived in and wanted to stay in Jefferson). Now, with a boost from Katrina, a move from the Ninth is with great sadness finally happening. Lucky enough to find a site in Orleans large enough to build the campus they feel they need to compete for students (with Brother Martin and Rummel, for that's the two other schools that the student population Holy Cross targets generally selects between) with an owner (the Archdiocese) willing to bend over backwards to accomodate them, the school now is being criticized by some for not modifying it's plans to accomodate an expensive-to-maintain 40-year-old building that is of a design that is about as far from anything that could be considered "classic New Orleans styling" as can be
because some feel it is an "integral historic part of the architectural fabric" of the city. I guess I'm missing something, because although I can easily sympathize with Cabrini parishioners over the loss of their beloved church building, I'm just not understanding the outcry from those outside the parish whose "interest" is historic preservation.
Just to be clear, no one is suggesing that Cabrini his historically significant. It is, however, architecturally significant.

And we wouldn't be having this discussion at this length if the archdiocense hadn't been underhanded in attempting to acquire control of a property that belongs to the parish (building and property *and* insurance proceeds, including flood insurance.)

It is not at all clear that the archiocese has a clear title to the property to transfer it, given the vagueries of the meeting at which the "transfer" was affected.

If this falls apart, Holy Cross and the Archdiocese will have only themselves to blame. To avoid this coming to chasing Holy Cross out of Orleans Parish, they should be prepared to sit down and discuss the future of the church.

The alternative is we all learn that the archdiocese didn't have a clear title to transfer, or any real authority for the demolition. Then the lawyers will begin to feed. If the church has been demolished, I will cheer them every step of the way.

I would rather everyone treat this as an economic development opportunity. If they really need more than two city blocks (and if they do, why did they settle on this site), then we need to make it easy on them to acquire the necessary property. I think they'd find a lot of willing sellors in the immediate neighborhood.
I guess because I, who was not even a member of Cabrini parish, heard about the meeting for the parishioners held at St. Pius in plenty enough time to attend, and was aware that it would include a presentation of the offer for the property from Holy Cross and then afterward a meeting which would only include Cabrini parishioners and representatives of the Archdiocese at which a decision on accepting or declining the offer was to be reached that I don't see that there was anything "underhanded" about it. I would estimate that there were in the neighborhood of two hundred people in attendance at the meeting, including members of the Parish Council. The point that some feel that the building is architecturally significant was definately was the fact that there were no plans for the Archdiocese to reinstate the parish in the near future. Again...the same situation exists for my parish.

As for the Archdiocese and Holy Cross "only having themselves to blame"...this process has been playing out in the public eye over the course of close to a year now. There was no subterfuge, no hidden intentions. It's been known all along that Holy Cross was trying to acquire either the Cabrini/Redeemer-Seton site or the Kenner site, and that if the Cabrini site were chosen that the intention was to demolish all structures on the parcel. There was no attempt to deceive either the Cabrini parishioners or the general public by leading them to believe that the school intended to refurbish and use the church building. And yet it's not until months after the Cabrini parishioners voted to accept the HC offer (with full knowledge that the buildings would be demolished) and more than a month after HC announced it's choice to stay in Orleans parish and a demolition permit has been approved that the "preservation" interests are heard from. I think Jarvis DeBerry said it well in his column the other day--where were those who are now protesting as this whole open process was playing out?
PD, I am relying on the reports of parishoners as to the way in which the meeting was advertised, attended and conducted.

I'm not saying you're right and they're wrong. My reporters instincts tell me there is something here that bears investigating. (The same instincts tell me that it as likely as not that nothing underhanded happened, but there's enough he-said, she-said disparity at this point that I'm getting back with the parishoners to have them flesh out their account of the evening.

Please keep in mind that I think its important that Holy Cross remain in town. I also think its important that we save architecturally important buildings, both modern and historic.

And the attitude expressed by some in the paper (not you) is not contributing to anything like a reasonable dialogue. The high-handedness of the archdiocese is probably at root. They believe they are answerable to no one outside the church, an attitude that has left me to largley abandon the church, even if I could never likely lose my Catholic "identify" (think of the term "secular Jew" and apply it to people like me).

My family is not churched since moving to NOLA, and my own ambivalence (which is catching on my with 14 year old daughter) is a large part of that. People like Maestri are the primary cause of that. I hope someday to have chance to meet him and tell him in person how the attitude of Church fathers like himself drives people away.

I'm not sure Cabrini can be saved at this point, but I'd hope we could make enough noise that the next architecturally significant structure modern nthat faces demolition in the name of progress and recovery is carefully considered.
I sure didn't want the discussion to become some kind of pissing contest over who had the more righteous cause...LOL. I just wanted to make clear that it was my understanding that this was about as open a process as we have around here, albeit an "evolving" one, as the "original" expression of interest in the property by HC indicated that the school would attempt to use the second floor classrooms of the Redeemer-Seton buildings while rehabbing the first floors and razing the remaining buildings on the site. At the time HC was also offering to build a performing arts building which could be used by the Cabrini parishioners as a church should the parish be "reactivated" (with some agreement to share costs for the building in the future), however with no assurances from the Archdiocese that SFC would in fact be an active parish anytime soon if at all, that part of the offer was dropped.

As for the physical condition of the church building (Pre-K), see this post on the topic by a former Cabrini school board member:
I have lived in the neighborhood for 15 years. Never in this time has the Parish ever bothered to reach out to the area. I know of other churches that the parish members took an active roll the church was saved. It is a good example of design but like lots my material things I have had to discard because of Katrina it needs to go so the neighborhood can move on. It would still be there in a year and still full of crap if HC had not taken over the property. Sure you can right lots of letters and do court actions but where were all of you six months ago?
Mark, touching back on your original post on the referred to the July 23, 2006 (not exactly "the early days after Katrina", as you put it) meeting at St. Pius as "poorly noticed and attended"; the photograph accompanying the July 29 article in the Clarion Herald ( seems to show that at least SOME representative number of parishioners were in attendance, as I remember. You'll also notice in the body of the article that even in July the representation by all parties was that the existing church and other buildings on the sites would be demolished and that the possibility of HC building a new building to serve as a parish church had been dropped (at the Archdiocese's request, although that's not stated in the article).

If Professor Verderber has intimated to you that no one knew beforehand that the issue of a transfer of the property would be discussed at the July meeting, then he has been given incorrect information; the possibility of a transfer of the property to HC was the sole announced reason for the meeting to be held in the first place. As to his statement that people left the meeting before the issue was raised...I don't know what to say to that without becoming accusatory. Practically the first words out of meeting facilitator Father Michael Jacques' mouth as he called everyone to order was a statement that the purpose of the meeting was to hear a presentation from the Holy Cross board of their proposal to purchase the land, and for the parishioners to come to some consensus as to whether to accept or refuse the offer on the table.

We all want our pre-Katrina lives back; I want my pre-Katrina church and parish back as do the SFC parishioners, but I've pretty much accepted that I'm not going to get that. We're all just trying to make lemonade out of the lemons we've been handed at this point.
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