St. Maurice Roman Catholic Church in the Lower 9th Ward was deconsecrated and shut down in 2008, 151 years after its construction. The Archdiocese of New Orleans deemed the heavy damage after Hurricane Katrina, falling attendance and the estimated $2 million cost to reopen it too steep a price, leaving the old church silent and empty.
Six years later, its doors will reopen, although there’s still a slight leak dripping through the northern side of the ceiling. But repairs will be made, and New Orleans Airlift, an artist’s collaborative, is working to place an art installation called “Space Rites” at the site, which will remain open from October through January.
Creative Alliance of New Orleans offered the space to the group after local attorney Blake Jones purchased it for them. CANO has similar spaces in Central City and St. Bernard Parish.
Taylor Lee Shepherd, an artist who has been working with Airlift since 2008, leads the project. The idea is to use old CRT televisions to create oscilloscopes — instruments that create a visual image of sound — and to invite musicians, choirs, speakers and a congregation to use the space while creating a picture of the sounds they generate.
“The oscilloscopes came about not long ago,” Shepherd said at St. Maurice, his voice reverberating and echoing as he fiddled with a small television in the transept of the church. “I had a couple of these little travel TV oscilloscopes and started to run music through them and found out how to turn a TV into an oscilloscope. And since then I’ve been collecting little TVs.”
The church remains a beautiful space with natural acoustics that provide a colossal impact of sound. Frescos of saints face each other on the four walls of the transept, each writing next to an animal or, in one case, a child with wings.
The stone altar stands powerful, raised above the nave of the church and flanked by two white marble podiums. Though all the windows were once stained glass, only the highest remain colored, spewing warm reds, blues and greens across the 1950s organ that hovers unused above the entrance.
In the two arms of the transept, Shepherd hopes to build structures to hold all of the oscilloscopes.
“This seems like an elegant way to have an environment respond to you. If I’m just standing here yelling,” he said, as he stood in the center of the church, “everything is lighting up. Immediately it responds. Doing that, anyone can paint a giant painting of light with their voice.”
Airlift, perhaps best known for its Music Box endeavor in 2012, has put its weight behind the project. They booked musicians like Japanese percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani and experimental guitarist Rob Cambre and enlisted the Lower 9th Ward Choir, so visitors might see the immense visuals created by the oscilloscopes.
But, to them, the most important opportunity is to offer the space to the Mount Nebo Bible Baptist Church, which has worshiped without a building of its own since it was destroyed in the floods after Hurricane Katrina.
“I have to say, among the things that we have done in the community as Airlift,” co-founder Delaney Martin said, making room for a church through an artistic intervention “seems rather radical and amazing.”
Mount Nebo pastor the Rev. Charles Duplessis agrees.
“We see it as a blessing and as an opportunity,” he said. “Because we’re having service right now in our home, to go back into the community and rebuild our sanctuary really helps us.”
Duplessis believes the installation could provide new ideas and possibilities to the community’s youth. It’s an enormous gain for the area and a reason for hope, he said.
“I always tell people,” Duplessis said, “you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You just have to use your wheel along with mine.”