New life being breathed into St. Rose de Lima site

The former St. Rose de Lima School in New Orleans – shuttered since 1978 – and the former church building will soon be resurrected by the nonprofit Rose Community Development Corporation.

Plans for a $10 million redevelopment of the site – to be called the “Bayou Treme Center” – were unveiled Oct. 29 in Harahan at a St. Rose de Lima Elementary School reunion of students who graduated from 1940-77.

While the reunion was well underway, Hal Brown, project lead, gave a short presentation on the venture.

“We’re not tearing down any buildings,” Brown assured them. “We are preserving and updating them to modern standards.”

Former students presented Brown with a bronze plaque to install on the school building once it’s renovated.

Someone in the crowd yelled, “Can we come back?”

“Yes, we hope to have you back,” Brown responded.

Someone else yelled, “What happened to the organ?”

Brown said it was intact, as was much of the church except for the electrical and heating and air conditioning in the basement, which prompted someone to say, “Miss Hilda would be proud!”

That spurred conversations among the classmates about long-time St. Rose de Lima music teacher, Miss Hilda Cabouche.

“We did everything at St. Rose,” said Evelyn Gaudet Comeaux, who attended the reunion with her sister Estelle Gaudet Huber. “We learned the basics. I have a lot to be thankful to those nuns (the Sisters of St. Joseph) for.”

Plans for the buildings

Brown urged the crowd to hold their 2012 reunion at the former 11,000-square-foot church next year. Of the four buildings at the former parish site, the church had the least damage from Hurricane Katrina and will be renovated first. The basement housing the electrical and heating and cooling systems was flooded. The stations of the cross, stained glass and murals remained intact, but the archdiocese removed the sanctuary, side altars, the altar rail, pulpit and half of the pews. It will undergo a $1 million facelift and become a performing arts center and gallery available for rent. It has a target completion date of April 2012.

“We will just clean it up and add more bathrooms,” he said.

Other parts of the project include transforming the former community center and cafeteria into a business incubator with enough space for tenants and art studios; converting the former rectory into office space; and retaining the three-story, 23,000-square-foot school as a school with office space.

“It’s wonderful,” reunion organizer Semone Miller, class of 1958, said about reviving St. Rose. “It means everything that all of our heritage will not be lost. It will be kept alive. It will still be a meaningful part of the community, especially the school which will remain a center of learning.”

Project planning

Brown said he grew up near the project, attending Corpus Christi elementary and St. Augustine High School, and often rode his bicycle in the area. When Katrina destroyed the fabric of the neighborhood and the church closed in 2006 in the archdiocese’s post-Katrina pastoral plan, he worked with the Downtown Neighborhoods Association that collaborated with former Mayor Ray Nagin’s administration to identify blighted properties that could be brought back to commerce in a Unified New Orleans plan.

“St. Rose was the largest property in the Bayou Road Recovery Zone,” Brown said.

Once identified, Rose Community Development Corporation starting working on a plan. By 2009, it presented a proposal to the archdiocese to renovate the site. The archdiocese wanted neighborhood input before making a decision. In September 2010, the project was a go, Brown said, and a lease-to-purchase agreement was signed with the archdiocese.

The project has been deemed eligible for state and federal historic rehabilitation tax credits, Brown said. Manning Architects of New Orleans completed the architectural engineering feasibility study and is now doing detailed drawings.

Already, $5.6 million has been raised, and several tenants have signed preliminary letters of intent to lease two-

thirds of the former campus. Among them: the existing Lagniappe Academies charter school to lease the school building beginning in August 2012; the nonprofit New Corp Business Development Center,  which is a community development financial institution; and other small nonprofits.

Brown said another $2 million is needed to start the project.

“We hope to start work by 2012,” he told alumnae. “Thank you for your faith in Bayou Treme. We are going to bring back St. Rose de Lima.”

“I’m very optimistic about this,” said Ralph Posey, 66, Class of 1959, said. “It will revitalize and renew the neighborhood.”

            Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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