After being shuttered for decades, the former Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Church on St. Bernard Avenue is set to be redeveloped into an apartment complex serving mainly low-income residents.

The project, which was first proposed in 2015, officially broke ground Wednesday.

The 53-unit complex, which will also include 4,200 square feet of retail space, is scheduled to be completed next year. It is about a block off North Claiborne Avenue. 

"This project will bring critical affordable rental housing stock to a core and historic neighborhood,” said City Councilman Jared Brossett, who represents the area.

The complex of one- and two-bedroom units, which will be built both within the former church and in a new four-story building next door, is an inversion of what has become a typical development strategy in the city, where a handful of affordable units are added to market-rate complexes in order to secure tax credits or zoning benefits.

The Sacred Heart project, which was developed by Providence Community Housing and Columbia Residential, will feature 44 units set aside for workers making less than 60 percent of the area median income, meaning that they make less than about $36,000 for a family of four.

Providence and Columbia were the main firms involved in redeveloping the former Lafitte and St. Bernard public housing complexes. 

“This gives us an opportunity to demonstrate what we’re able to do, how we’re able to help these communities come back,” Keith Cunningham, executive director of the Louisiana Housing Corp., said of the Sacred Heart project. “Not by sitting in Baton Rouge and dictating to these communities what their housing should look like, but by creating opportunities.”

The $13 million project includes $9 million in low-income tax credits and forgivable loans from the federal government, which are distributed by the city and state. 

The Housing Authority of New Orleans will provide vouchers for residents of 13 units and the Louisiana Housing Corp. will provide vouchers for another 11 units.

The affordable units will have to remain available to low-income residents for 30 years, although Providence has pledged to keep them affordable permanently.

“That’s part of why Providence wants to be involved. We’re committed to permanent affordability,” President Terri North said.

Sacred Heart has a complex place in the history of racial politics in the city.

The church and its school were built in 1955 specifically to serve the white population of the area, while black parishioners were made to attend Corpus Christi or St. Augustine churches. But as white parishioners moved at an increasing pace to the suburbs, the church was left without a significant congregation and was shuttered.

“This site ... at one time had a very negative history,” said Vance Vaucresson, whose family owned a hot sausage company in a building across the street from the site. “It was the site of the first true segregation by the Catholic Church in the city of New Orleans.”

Further plans could involve the redevelopment of the Vaucresson property, which has been vacant since Hurricane Katrina.

The projects, he said, could help stem the tide of gentrification that has been moving into the 7th Ward.

“In the process of gentrification, we can lose the most valuable part of this city’s history, which is its culture,” Vaucresson said. These projects “make sure our story is told and carried on for generations.”

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.​