Historic New Orleans Church Becomes a Center of Community Once More
On Bayou Road, a culturally significant corridor packed with hundreds of years of New Orleans history, local nonprofit and development groups (including the National Trust Community Investment Corporation) have come together to reinvigorate three of the city’s storied buildings with new life: the St. Rose de Lima campus.
This historic church and its two schoolhouses have been transformed into three unique arts, education, and entrepreneurship spaces, now called the Rose Collaborative. Southern Rep Theatre, a New Orleans institution for more than 30 years, started its first season in the church in fall 2018. Waldorf School of New Orleans, a nonprofit school that integrates academics with the arts, culture, and community, will soon move into the three-story brick St. Rose Parochial School. And Fund 17, a nonprofit organization that provides assistance to local entrepreneurs and business owners, anchors a diverse group of co-locating nonprofits in what once served as a two-story wooden schoolhouse on campus.
When St. Rose de Lima was deconsecrated by the archdiocese in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, community members came together to create Rose Community Development Corporation (Rose CDC) and suggested that the space could become a center for arts, culture, education, and economic development. In 2016, Rose CDC partnered with Alembic Community Development to jointly purchase the complex, and in summer 2017, they started restoring the complex, ensuring that its history was positioned front and center.
The most prominent art on display on the restored campus is a tryptic that hangs inside the church. The painting depicts U.S. Capt. Andre Cailloux, a beloved community figure and free black man who fought for the Union with the Louisiana Native Guards and fell at Port Hudson on the first panel. The second portrays the Union regiments of free men of color in battle, and the third shows Father Maistre, a white abolitionist pastor who led St. Rose de Lima and performed funeral rights for Capt. Cailloux against the explicit commands of the church.
“It’s the first thing you notice when you walk inside,” said Jonathan Leit, New Orleans-based director of Alembic.
In addition to the tryptic, the Rose Collaborative preserved St. Rose de Lima’s history by installing a black box—a self-contained, flexible performance space that can be configured into several different seating arrangements—directly into the back of the church where the altar once stood, so the remainder of the interior is open and retains the building’s original volume and architecture. Importantly, the redesigned building still conforms to the Secretary of the Interior Standards, so the interior of the church can easily be reverted to its original configuration.
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Using federal and state historic tax credits, Alembic and Rose CDC also preserved the Stations of the Cross statues that ring the church, as well as its stained-glass windows. They even repaired and rehung the building’s original lanterns, which still serve as light fixtures. “Even with the theater box installed, a hardcore preservationist can still walk in and feel the church—all the memories and narratives that come with it,” Leit explained.
One of the biggest challenges for the Rose Collaborative was finding a tenant for the redeveloped church building who embraced its community development values and generated revenue, making Southern Rep Theatre an ideal candidate to fill the space. And Aimee Hayes, producing artistic director for Southern Rep, felt that St. Rose de Lima was a great fit for the professional theater.
“I don’t know if there are any downsides to being in a beautiful historic home in the middle of an equally historically and culturally rich neighborhood,” she said. “There are things about being in this building that we haven’t even thought of—nobody’s dreamed it or envisioned it. I look forward to seeing what is inspired in people, what kind of things they want to make around and in the space.”
Southern Rep Theatre is already planning to pay homage to St. Rose de Lima through an upcoming play about Bayou Road and the church itself that explores the intersection of cultures that have inhabited the space. While the majority of the theater’s professional shows will take place inside the box, additional pieces will be set in the front of the church and on its plaza. The theater also commissioned a dance performance inspired by the space to take place on the front steps, embracing the spirit of community surrounding the building.
Similarly, both Fund 17 and the Waldorf school felt like natural fits for St. Rose de Lima’s historic school outbuildings on the campus.
According to Amiel Provosty, president of the board of directors of the Waldorf school, “These days in New Orleans, a lot of old buildings end up as residences, hotels, or offices. For a school building to be closed for about 40 years and come back alive as a school yet again is important and powerful.” Provosty added that the church’s mission mirrors that of the school. “A Waldorf school is an expression of spirit, guidance, community, and aesthetics, so we definitely feel connected to the building as an old parish institution.”
The two-story wooden schoolhouse that currently holds offices for a number of social justice nonprofits, will soon add Fund 17’s Community Business Incubator, which will “combine training and mentorship programs, capital access, and accessible space and equipment for local entrepreneurs,” according to the Rose Collaborative website.
For Haley Burns, founder and executive director of Fund 17, the connection between the church complex and her organization’s work is clear. “Churches are cornerstones to communities,” she said. “Fund 17 is also a community: of entrepreneurs, small business owners, partners, and students. Being in a historic church campus where, at one time, people came together from around the city to worship, learn, and build community is a beautiful legacy to uphold.”