More than a decade ago, the Rev. Fred Luter Jr. had a vision.
The church he'd presided over since 1986 had long outgrown its home at 2515 Franklin Ave. in the St. Roch neighborhood and had to hold three services each Sunday just to meet the demand.
It was time to step out on faith, he said God told him. It was time for a new space.
His then-flock of more than 7,000 agreed, and the church began to pool tithes and offerings to make it happen.
Thirteen years later, that vision has been realized in New Orleans East.
"With designs, you see the design, but just to actually see it come to pass, it’s just really, really amazing," Luter, of New Orleans East, said Wednesday as he stood in Franklin Avenue Baptist Church's new 126,000-square-foot facility at 8110 Interstate 10 Service Road South.
"We had an open church here Sunday for our congregation, and the people were just literally blown away. Some of them were crying."
The $35 million project represents one of the largest investments in New Orleans East since Hurricane Katrina and one he and other residents hope will be a catalyst for further development.
The 3,500-seat sanctuary and adjacent children and youth churches will easily accommodate the church's sizable congregation, which fell from more than 7,000 members before Katrina to more than 5,000 afterward but still needed two services.
No more will two services be the norm. "I said, 'Y'all got kinfolk coming here, that y’all don’t even know about.' So it’s going to be good just to see everybody come together in one place," Luter said.
After he was hurt in a motorcycle accident in 1977 — an experience Luter has said "injured his body, but saved his soul" — he became a born-again Christian and began preaching on street corners in the Lower 9th Ward. Almost a decade later, he took the reins of Franklin Avenue, his first and only church.
The congregation, then housed in what older members affectionately call "the little white church," was only 65 members strong.
But the ministry grew, and grew again, until members were able to purchase an 1,800-seat sanctuary on Franklin Avenue in the late 1990s. That's in part due to a model Luter calls "FRANgelism": having church members invite their friends, relatives, associates and neighbors to worship.
Filled to capacity each service, the church agreed with Luter's vision in 2004 to buy a 90-acre tract of land near Six Flags in New Orleans East.
But a year later came Katrina, which scattered Franklin Avenue's membership and prompted the federal government to exercise its right of "eminent domain" of the land on which the new church was to sit. The feds needed mud from the site to shore up the levees that protected the city, they told him.
"They didn't even give us a choice," Luter said. "They gave us back what we had paid for it."
As members slowly began to come back to New Orleans, Luter and church elders, noting the standing-room-only services, began to again see the need to expand. Just as they had done before, they began to save, a process that took years.
Help also came from Hancock Whitney Bank. Core/Livers Construction built the church on the 25-acre site of an abandoned apartment complex, while Visioneering and Hewitt & Washington architects helped design it.
Thirty percent of the work was done by disadvantaged businesses, many of which are owned by church members.
The result: a gleaming $35 million sanctuary and multipurpose building, with a 132-foot tower and a 15-foot cross, that is easily visible from Interstate 10. So too is the sign out front: "Tithes and Offerings at Work."
The church will hold a ribbon-cutting at 9 a.m. Sunday and a dedication ceremony at 10 a.m.
Luter hopes it will help bring about a change in an area desperately in need of new investment.
"That’s my prayer," he said. "Think about it: You have over 3,500 people who are coming here every Sunday. After service, they need somewhere to eat. So hopefully, we will get some folks to consider opening restaurants, or patronizing the restaurants we already have.
"This is a good opportunity to be a blessing, not just to Franklin Avenue Church, but to the people in the community."