A new life for a former church

Choir voices may no longer be rising from the choir loft at the former Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Church, but new voices of residents will soon echo in the apartments that were carved out of the former church on St. Bernard Avenue.

That’s because Providence Community Housing and Columbia Residential, with several funding partners, have renovated the 6,500-square-foot church into six unique rental units and built a new, four-story building with 47 residential units (most with balconies), a fitness center, community meeting room, laundry facilities, gated parking and retail space on the ground floor. A ribbon-cutting ceremony is set for Thursday, Oct. 18 at 10:30 a.m.

Terri North, president and CEO of Providence Community Housing, said the project was approached as if it were a historic restoration, even though it wasn’t. It was discovered that the church was built in 1955 after a fire destroyed the wooden-framed parish church. The parish was founded in 1871. 

“We build new units but also preserve existing units like we did at St. Ann (Square on Ursulines Avenue),” said North, adding that St. Ann is undergoing renovations. “We don’t want people living in bad conditions.”

North, a Catholic, said she looked for the best use of the church for the community, keeping in mind that it was once a sacred space. She said area residents supported the project as they learned about it from two community meetings that were conducted.

“What it came down to was the need was so great for housing,” she said. “In my mind, I could not justify not building apartments in it. The community needs housing, and we’re here to serve the community.”

Of the 53 total units, 44 are reserved for residents making below 60 percent of the area median income, and most of the remaining are priced at affordable rates, with nine priced at market rate.

‘Green’ building

Residents pay utilities, but the building pays the water bill, North said. Each unit has kitchen appliances and hook-ups for washers and dryers. One-bedroom units are 700 square feet, and two-bedroom units are 900 square feet. JHP Architects and Block Builders designed and built the project. It is considered an Enterprise Green facility, meaning it is energy-efficient.

The property is already 100 percent leased, she said.

Providence making a difference

Since 2006, Providence Community Housing has developed 1,500 affordable housing units and approximately 100 homes, many in neighborhoods where people were displaced after Hurricane Katrina. 

North said Providence’s commitment to the community was to provide affordable housing and opportunities for residents to thrive.

“We don’t want to isolate people in affordable housing where they can’t live a quality of life,” she said. “We try to pick our sites based on that.”

Providence’s mission was born after Katrina to address affordable housing needs in New Orleans. While in Baton Rouge after Katrina, North worked with Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans, Edmundite Father Michael Jacques, now deceased, former pastor at St. Peter Claver Church, and Charlotte Bourgeois on ideas to revitalize the city and the Fauburg Marigny/Treme area. Father Jacques was chairman of Providence’s first board. 

“What came out of (those discussions) was Providence” helping with the housing piece, North said. “The need for affordable housing is huge, especially in the senior market, and especially with rents rising.”

Providence worked with HUD to rebuild the Lafitte Housing Development and convert the former St. Ann Church and School property on Ursulines Avenue, both badly damaged by Katrina. St. Ann Square became 43 affordable apartments for seniors. 

Providence now owns and operates 14 communities including senior apartments, mixed income, affordable housing and mixed use. Sacred Heart at St. Bernard is a mixed-use property with commercial businesses and apartments. Nearly 100-percent occupancy has been maintained at all sites, North said.

Providence is currently renovating and expanding St. Ann to include 59 units and a renovated community center that will house commercial offices. During this time, several residents will live at Sacred Heart at St. Bernard, North said.

A long time coming

Providence’s success in revitalizing projects in the area cemented the idea to obtain the Sacred Heart property. They first began eyeing it in 2007. It took until June 2016 for financing to be secured to buy the property from the archdiocese. The church had been closed since 1972; and the school since 1963.

“It took a long time, but the archdiocese hung in with us because they wanted to see something that served the community well,” North said. 

“We’re always happy to put things back into the community commerce,” said archdiocesan property manager Liz Lacombe.

North said the church was a shell when it was acquired and not in great shape. Even though the church had been closed since 1972, it was being used for years by the Food for Families ministry to distribute food three days a week for years. The school and auditorium had long been demolished.

To make the church usable, steel beams were added for structural soundness, the roof was replaced and a new foundation shored. 

Pains were taken to preserve many original church elements including the average ceiling height of 20 feet, the brick walls, center aisle lighting, a medallion window in the former altar converted into the sitting area, the dove above the former altar location, stations of the cross (now inside units) and even the cornerstone now inside one of the units, she said. 

Weather and few surprises, including the discovery of a parish time capsule discovery filled with elements from the former parish and a basement under the former gym that had to be removed, caused a few project delays.

“It’s had its challenges, but it’s worth it,” North said.

Maintaining the name of the church also was important to North.

“I felt it imperative to keep the name because it was part of the history,” she said. “We’re keeping the building, so we’re keeping the name.”

North sees Sacred Heart at St. Bernard as a neighborhood anchor.

“We really believe this site will help bring back many businesses. … and it’s an opportunity for folks to stay in the neighborhood,” she said. 

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

  • What: Opening of Sacred Heart at St. Bernard, a mixed-income, multifamily community redeveloped from the church and property that was the former Sacred Heart Catholic Church. It is a joint project between Providence Community Housing and Columbia Residential.
  • Where: 1720 St. Bernard Ave., New Orleans.
  • When: Ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday, Oct. 18 at 10:30 a.m.
  • Details: Visit www.sacredheart-stbernard.com

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