A renovated St. Rose de Lima campus promises to inject a new dose of culture and social justice into a stretch of Bayou Road long known for its activism.
The former St. Rose de Lima Catholic Church, which sits on Bayou Road near Broad Street, never reopened after Hurricane Katrina. As the Archdiocese of New Orleans downsized after the storm, St. Rose de Lima Parish was merged with Our Lady of the Rosary, whose church stands on Esplanade Avenue near City Park.
Soon after the archdiocese shuttered and deconsecrated St. Rose de Lima, neighbors decided that they wanted a say in the reclamation of the majestic Gothic church, with the front façade that soars above Bayou Road.
In 2010, they formed the Rose Community Development Corp., with plans to create a community center that was rich in arts, education and activism.
That vision was consistent with the church’s setting, on a section of Bayou Road that has long stood for “what’s right and righteous” in New Orleans, said Shawn Kennedy, 71, who stepped in as board chairwoman after her husband, developer and visionary Hal Brown, died in 2013.
That sensibility is reflected in many parts of the new renovation — in its main tenant, Southern Rep Theatre, and in its carefully curated space for nonprofits, entrepreneurs and education. But in the redone church’s grand lobby, beneath vaulted ceilings, stands a triptych painting that hints at the historical precedent for what’s being done here today.
Painted by artist Langston Allston, the triptych tells the story of a black Union Army soldier, Capt. André Cailloux, who died in the siege of Port Hudson in 1863 and was given a funeral at St. Rose de Lima by the parish’s abolitionist priest, the Rev. Claude Paschal Maistre, despite opposition from the archdiocese.
All along the route for the funeral procession from Bayou Road to Esplanade to St. Louis Cemetery No. 2, the streets were lined with slaves, former slaves and free people of color paying their respects. It was considered the largest gathering of black people in the city’s history.
“We didn’t know Cailloux’s story until we were well into this project. But it’s now an obligation that this story is sustained and celebrated here,” said architect Mike Grote, who worked on the project with planner Jonathan Leit.
Southern Rep’s producing artistic director, Aimée Hayes, is also gripped by the story. She first visited the church in 2012 for a reading of “Holy Wars,” Rob Florence’s play about Cailloux.
Brown, a native of the 7th Ward, first found out about Cailloux at that reading and was “astounded by it,” Kennedy said. “I think it’s serendipitous,” she said. “It’s a remarkable sign that this church was a good place to do this kind of work.”
Today, the church is bracketed by a segment of Bayou Road that is known for businesses run by African-American owners and others interested in social justice. It’s anchored by the Community Book Center, the city’s only remaining black-owned bookstore.
The history of this area as a community market dates back hundreds of years, to when Bayou Road was the route Native Americans used to carry goods through cypress swamps from Bayou St. John to the Mississippi River. They showed the route to French explorers.
Two centuries ago, this area was known for its free people of color, a story told in a museum on Esplanade Avenue founded by New Orleans Tribune publisher Beverly McKenna, who also owns several buildings on Bayou Road.
In 2010, the Rose CDC pushed forward efforts to build upon that rich cultural history with a group that was led by Brown and included Community Book Center owner Vera Warren Williams, sculptor Robert Tannen and his wife, Jeanne Nathan, and Vaughn Fauria, longtime leader of NewCorp Inc., a community lender focused on female and minority entrepreneurs.
In 2014, the CDC chose Alembic Community Development to redevelop the three-building church campus, which also includes a three-story brick school building and a wood-framed parish hall, both of which sit behind the church on Columbus Street. In 2016, Rose CDC and Alembic formed a joint venture that purchased the campus from the Archdiocese of New Orleans for $550,000.
Grote, the architect, is Alembic’s director of building programs; planner Leit directs Alembic’s new Orleans office.
The campus will hold a formal grand opening Thursday.
But the developers and main tenants want every day to feel like a grand opening.
Recently, Hayes gave an impromptu tour to a truant officer who lives nearby and is also an aspiring writer; she encouraged him to participate in the theater’s "workshop Wednesdays."
“To be part of the day-to-day of a neighborhood, this neighborhood, is a gift,” she said.