After years of trying to find a new purpose for the flooded Our Lady of Lourdes church on Napoleon Avenue, the Archdiocese of New Orleans has decided to place the majestic building up for sale to a buyer that can be a good neighbor to the Catholic school next door.
The church (dedicated in 1925) flooded following the levee breaches after Hurricane Katrina, and suffered such extensive damage to its foundation that it was simply not feasible for the church to repair it, said Elizabeth Lacombe, the building management director for the archdiocese. Our Lady of Lourdes was merged with St. Matthias into Blessed Trinity Parish, and church leaders were never able to develop a use for the building since then, Lacombe said in a meeting this week with Freret-area neighbors.
“I’m sure some people will be pained to see the church no longer be a church,” said Father Dennis Hayes of Blessed Trinity Parish. “But it is harder to see it abandoned.”
Now, the archdiocese has decided to subdivide the property, formally separating the church building and its rectory from the Holy Rosary Academy building on the same lot, and issue a request for proposals to purchase and redevelop the property. Because the church intends to continue using that building for Holy Rosary, the buyer of the Our Lady of Lourdes building must present plans that the archdiocese determines are a good fit so close to the school.
“At this point, there is no purchaser that we’ve entered into an agreement with,” attorney Todd Gennardo told the neighbors. “The idea that the school’s next door would play into that conversation.”
There is no set asking price for the building, and the church is pursuing a request for proposals rather than listing it with an agent so that it can closely consider the entire future of the building at once, Lacombe said. How the building will be used will be considered alongside the monetary value offered.
“It’s not always the highest-price proposal,” Lacombe said.
“It is not a purely market-driven development,” Gennardo said. “We are focused on the fact that this is a school.”
What such a use might be was the primary question from neighbors at the meeting, but church officials said they will not know until they begin receiving bids. The only stipulation in writing will be that the property never be used to facilitate abortions in any way, Lacombe said, and an establishment that serves alcohol would also likely be frowned upon.
But some commercial uses — perhaps, say, the grocery store that Freret residents continue to clamor for — might be deemed acceptable, officials said. A residential redevelopment of some sort might also work, either within the building or replacing it. If a buyer planned to use the property for single-family homes, her or she might subdivide it again, Gennardo noted.
“To say that it would be commercial would be premature,” Gennardo said.
Essentially at the corner of Freret Street, the church is located near the epicenter of the city’s dramatically rising property values, and church leaders were asked whether the building could be demolished. They do not know, because they’ve never tried, they replied. Any demolition would require City Council approval. The building is not within the jurisdiction of the city Historic District Landmarks Commission, but if designated a landmark (similar to the former New Orleans Adolescent Hospital), might then fall under the more restrictive HDLC oversight as well.
The building is, however, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Lacombe said. Further, the zoning is a fairly restrictive residential in parts, creating another hurdle for any redevelopment.
“The property is of a historic nature, and whoever purchases it would have to deal with that,” Gennardo said.
(Contacted after the meeting, Michelle Kimball of the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans would be “opposed without a doubt” to any future attempt to tear down the building.)
In the meantime, church law requires that all items in the church considered sacred must be removed, Lacombe said. From the interior, that would include pews, altars, baptismal fonts, and other objects.
Some exterior elements, such as the stained-glass windows, will also be removed, Lacombe said, telling neighbors so they won’t assume the removal activity automatically presages demolition. The windows will be stored and preserved until they can be used in the construction of a new church somewhere else in the area down the line, she said.
Some neighbors questioned the zig-zagging property line proposed to divide the church and school properties. Church officials said they spent months weighing options, but settled on this configuration primarily to maintain the two entrances for buses at opposite ends of the school parking lot.
Church officials said they would meet with the Freret Neighbors United group at their regular monthly meeting next week (on Tuesday evening at the Samuel Green Charter School). In the meantime, they will continue working with the city toward subdividing the property, and then can begin soliciting responses from potential purchasers.
The bid process itself will be private, Lacombe said, but the church will welcome input from neighbors on the types of development that would be welcome.