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 who would be a good neighbor to the Catholic school next door.
The church — dedicated in 1925 — flooded after Hurricane Katrina and suffered such extensive damage to its foundation that it was simply not feasible to repair it, said Elizabeth Lacombe, the building management director for the archdiocese.
Our Lady of Lourdes Parish was merged with St. Matthias into Blessed Trinity Parish, and church leaders were never able to develop a use for the building, Lacombe said in a meeting last week with neighbors of the church, which is just off Freret Street.
“I’m sure some people will be pained to see the church no longer be a church,” said the Rev. Dennis Hayes, of Blessed Trinity Parish. “But it is harder to see it abandoned.”
The archdiocese wants to subdivide the property, formally separating the church building and its rectory from the Holy Rosary Academy building on the same lot, and it plans to issue a request for proposals, seeking bidders who would like to purchase and redevelop the property.
Because the church intends to continue operating Holy Rosary at its existing location, the buyer of the Our Lady of Lourdes building must present a plan that the archdiocese determines would be 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 is 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 the property with an agent so that it can consider the future use of the building, 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 proposals. The only stipulation in writing will be that the property must never be used to facilitate abortions in any way, Lacombe said, and an establishment that serves alcohol also would 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 also might work, either within the building or replacing it. If a buyer plans to use the property for single-family homes, he might subdivide the lot again, Gennardo noted.
“To say that (the use) would be commercial would be premature,” he said.
The church is located near the epicenter of the city’s dramatically rising property values.
Any demolition would require City Council approval. The building is not under the jurisdiction of the city’s Historic District Landmarks Commission, but it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Lacombe said. Furthermore, zoning in the area is mostly residential, creating another hurdle for 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, said she would be “opposed without a doubt” to any 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, also will be removed, Lacombe said. The windows will be stored and preserved until they can be used in the construction of a new church somewhere else in the area, 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 the configuration primarily to maintain 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 Tuesday. In the meantime, they will continue working with the city toward subdividing the property and then can begin seeking 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 they would like to see.