Six years ago, St. Raphael the Archangel Church on Elysian Fields and Prentiss avenues nearly was obliterated by 10 feet of water, mud and God-knows-what-else from Hurricane Katrina.
Many thought the church was left for dead.
But on Oct. 16, Archbishop Gregory Aymond sprinkled holy water on a standing-room-only congregation and dedicated a pristinely restored worship space that now will be known as Transfiguration of the Lo
rd Church, where three merged parishes – St. Raphael the Archangel, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini and St. Thomas the Apostle (the UNO Newman Center) – will gather for weekend Mass.
“I thank you, the members of this parish of Transfiguration, because as people pass by on Ely
sian Fields, they will say, ‘They’re back home again. That church is open. They’re home again,’” Archbishop Aymond said in his homily. “This is a sign to this city and to this neighborhood that God is among us, that we have never lost hope, and that the people of Transfiguration Parish are people of faith, perseverance and resurrection.”
Awed by ‘resurrection’
Deacon Pete Rizzo, who had served at St. Frances Cabrini on Prentiss and Paris avenues before Hurricane Katrina inundated and closed that church permanently, was almost too overwhelmed to speak. Cabrini’s elementary school and church grounds – along with Redeemer-Seton High School – were sold to Holy Cross School after Katrina to enable Holy Cross to build a school at the new location.
“This means resurrection,” Deacon Rizzo said, choking back tears. “It also means unity. Finally, it was three parishes coming together as one, and I do think you could see that from the congregation today. It captured exactly what we’re trying to do, which was to have a multicultural parish where everyone loves one another and is welcomed. That’s what we had today.”
Father Paul Desrosiers, the former pastor of St. Frances Cabrini and current Transfiguration pastor, had built a church from scratch before, designing and building the new Sacred Heart Church in Lacombe after a fire destroyed the old structure.
But transforming an existing 1950s-era church into a new place of worship took months of parishioner input, guided by liturgical consultants Sister Terry Falco and Edward Begnaud, and architectural creativity from the firm of Eskew, Dumez and Ripple.
The planning work concentrated on converting a structure that once accommodated more than 900 people into a smaller, more intimate space that currently will seat 300, with flexibility to grow.
New ideas for worship space
Transfiguration parishioners accomplished the task essentially by creating a large gathering space inside the main front doors of the church, where parish social and other functions will be held.
The new worship space begins behind temporary white walls, which will be replaced with glass and wood in the next phase of construction.
A new baptismal font is situated front and center of the main aisle, and the Paschal candle appears to float above a large, flowing pool of holy water. On the side walls are 14 hand-painted Stations of the Cross by Benedictine artist Dom Gregory De Wit, which were displayed at the New Orleans Museum of Art before they found a home at St. Raphael Church on commission from long-time pastor Msgr. Vernon Aleman.
The crucifix that once hung behind the altar at St. Raphael is now situated at the center of the Transfiguration sanctuary – which is moved forward from its former position. Along the back wall, visible through a soaring glass window, is the iconic Risen Christ that once was suspended above the marble altar at St. Frances Cabrini. The Risen Christ is in an area where Transfiguration’s day chapel will be built.
It took creativity
Father Desrosiers said matching the architecture of the old church to current liturgical guidelines required study and creativity.
When the lights in the new Transfiguration Church were turned on after Archbishop’s homily, the space looked warm and inviting. And, parishioners noted with a smile, the sound system, which seemed to have a mind of its own at Cabrini, worked perfectly.
“Father Paul, I have only one concern,” Archbishop Aymond said, smiling and looking at the pastor. “It seems like the church isn’t big enough. There are so many people standing that we may have to push that wall back.”
“In the name of your parish – Transfiguration – may I suggest that is exactly what you have done with this church, this sacred place of worship,” Archbishop Aymond added. “You have transfigured it.”
The archbishop said while Katrina “affected” many people’s home and churches, the reopening of Transfiguration proved that Katrina could not “destroy or weaken the faith of the people.”
“We come together today to offer it to God and to thank God,” the archbishop said.
Fr. Brignac delighted
Concelebrating at the dedication Mass were Baton Rouge Bishop Robert Muench, whose parents lived in St. Raphael Parish, and former St. Raphael pastor Father H.L. Brignac. They both expressed delight that the church had been reopened.
“I really never realized it could be this nice,” Father Brignac said. “It’s so liturgically beautiful, and it’s so clean and bright. I’m so glad the church is back in operation. I never would have been able to have done all this.”
“It’s a very nostalgic day,” Bishop Muench said. “It brought back memories of many wonderful people, including Msgr. Aleman, the priests who have served here and my own parents. I was very conscious of their presence today.”
Winston Falgout, the former chairman of the pastoral council at St. Frances Cabrini, said the difficult feelings that arose after Cabrini church was sold and torn down have dissipated. He was thrilled to walk into his new church.
“I’m very happy with the blending of the parish,” Falgout said. “It was an outstanding job. There was a lot of love, and I hope everyone noticed the blending. I’m going to worship here until they bury me right there.”
And then Falgout laughed about moving from a small chapel at UNO to a larger “church.”
“It’s wonderful that we have some place to call our own,” Falgout said. “We can sit all over the place again. We are well blessed.”
Weekend Mass schedule
Transfiguration will celebrate Masses at 4 p.m. on Saturday and at 9 and 11 a.m. on Sunday. Weekday Masses will continue at the UNO Newman Center chapel at noon, Monday through Thursday.
“The whole new parish community – the three parishes coming together – have really grown and matured the past three years,” Father Desrosiers said. “We chose the name Transfiguration of the Lord as a powerful image of unity. As Moses and Elijah and Jesus were conversing, the transfiguration took place. The three became one in Jesus. These three parishes have been transfigured and transformed into one in Jesus also.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.