Over the past 165 years, the Marianites of Holy Cross have run a convent, operated a high school and ministered to the needy from a site in Bywater known as Holy Angels.
That era is now ending.
Sister Ann Lacour broke the news two weeks ago at the annual luncheon for alumnae of Holy Angels Academy, the all-girls high school that the sisters operated until 1992.
The historic campus has outlasted the Civil War, deadly yellow fever outbreaks and numerous destructive hurricanes, including Katrina. It cannot outlast Father Time.
The number of Marianite nuns has dwindled to 155 throughout the world, explained Lacour, the congregational leader, and their average age is 80. More than 20 years after the closure of Holy Angels Academy, only 15 nuns remain on the premises.
“We believe the property is too big for us,” Lacour told the more than 250 alumnae at the luncheon.
The women audibly gasped. Tears flowed.
“The news was so devastating to so many of us,” Nan Landry Schellhaas, a 1962 graduate, said later, choking up at the memory. “You just think of it as something that will be there forever because it was always in your life.”
Lacour has begun taking potential buyers through the property, which takes up a square block that fronts on St. Claude Avenue. The campus has five buildings, including a chapel with 22 stained glass windows, and is in the Bywater local historic district.
The nuns’ work began in New Orleans in 1849 when three young Marianites traveled to the city from France. They operated a boys orphanage and built the first of the buildings on the city block where the nuns reside today. In 1866, they opened the all-girls high school. Over time, mothers sent their daughters to Holy Angels, and the daughters sent their daughters there, too.
Sylvia Rousselle Lazaro took the public bus from her home in Algiers to Holy Angels, graduating from there in 1963. She remembered that none of the classrooms had air conditioning, but she said none of the girls complained.
The nuns were strict. Boys were not allowed on campus. The girls had to wear the school uniform: white blouses with gray skirts, white socks and navy-blue-and-white saddle Oxford shoes.
If you got five demerits, you had to attend Saturday school and endure your parents’ wrath. One year, Lazaro got demerits for putting on lipstick in assembly and not having her shoes polished.
But she remembers the nuns for their constant encouragement.
“All of the faculty were very invested in the students,” said Lazaro, who is retired from working as a makeup artist and cosmetic sales associate. “They raised us to be cheerleaders in life. We cheer everybody on.”
Sister Kay Viellion graduated from Holy Angels in 1955. Inspired by the nuns, she decided to join the order and become a teacher.
“The sisters were good to us,” said Viellion, who taught at Holy Cross College and now lives in Opelousas. “They encouraged us to use our gifts.”
Holy Angels Academy continued to graduate girls during the 1970s and 1980s. But lay teachers began replacing the nuns as fewer and fewer girls chose to enter the Marianite order. Meanwhile, the neighborhood declined.
The 1987 class had 100 students, down from 150 in previous generations.
The final blow came in 1987 when the Archdiocese of New Orleans opened Archbishop Hannan High School in Meraux and siphoned away many girls who came from the 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish.
The nuns made the difficult decision to close the school in 1992. Lacour took over that year. Four years later, she and the order’s other leaders decided to demolish the school gym, a move that provoked protests from nostalgic graduates.
During those years, Lacour also oversaw the renovation of the Holy Angels offices and the transformation of the three-story, red-brick high school into housing for the poor in a deal with an affiliate of Willwoods Community, a Metairie-based nonprofit with ties to the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
That lease could pose a problem for a potential buyer. Under it, a limited partnership affiliated with Willwoods provides 33 units of elderly affordable housing in a deal that is not scheduled to end until 2031, said Evans Schmidt, an attorney for the partnership. He said officials with the partnership would discuss the lease with a potential buyer, but he declined to speculate on their willingness to break it.
Records show that the Holy Angels property is assessed at $11 million, but as a religious institution it does not pay property taxes. A purchase by a private developer would presumably put the property on the tax rolls.
The nuns won’t necessarily sell it to whoever offers the highest price possible.
“Their intentions are as important — if not more important — than what they are willing to pay,” Lacour said.
The first company that viewed the property, at her invitation, was HRI Properties, which has made a practice of transforming old offices and warehouses into housing. Pres Kabacoff, the company’s chief executive officer, said he expects Holy Angels will become some form of multi-family housing.
“I don’t think a hotel would work that deep into the Bywater,” Kabacoff said. “Tearing it down would be a mistake. It’s pretty, and it’s a historic complex.”
Larry Schedler, a Metairie-based specialist in multi-family housing, is advising Lacour.
“The property is in really good condition,” he said, adding, “This is not the type of property for the typical developer who does garden-style apartments that you see in the suburbs.”
A continued presence
Lacour said the nuns will need 18 months to make arrangements to find another place to live following a sale. The Marianites will retain a presence in Bywater, in one way or another, since the order owns two houses in the neighborhood that are not for sale, Lacour added.
She noted that the nuns decided to rebuild Holy Angels after Hurricane Katrina flooded four of the five buildings. After reopening five months later, they created the Bywater Project, which helps neighbors pay rent and bills.
“They’ve been an integral part of the neighborhood,” said John Guarnieri, chairman of the Bywater Neighborhood Association. He said his organization holds community meetings and social gatherings at Holy Angels. “They are a moral and spiritual compass for us.”
The association hopes that whoever buys the property “would engage the neighborhood,” Guarnieri added. “It would be neighborly thing to do.”
The planned sale has a deep personal meaning for Lacour, who is 65. She grew up nearby on Alvar Street, and generations of girls in her family attended Holy Angels Academy. She graduated from there in 1967 and still remembers being in an elevator on the property when she first disclosed to someone else that she wanted to be a Marianite. And it is her home today.
“If I can let it go, anyone can let it go,” she said with a sigh. “It’s letting it go for a purpose. We care enough to allow someone else to do something significant.”
Lacour said every developer who has toured the property has asked if the nuns have ruled out any would-be buyer. Her answer: “Our prayer is that it not be a brothel or an abortion clinic.”
She paused and added, “I can speak for all 155 when I say we hope they will care for it as we have cared for it. We don’t hope for that. We pray for that.”