The repurposing of the former St. Rose de Lima Catholic Church property on Bayou Road has resulted in a new home for Southern Repertory Theatre as well as rental space for several nonprofits and the Waldorf School.

Southern Rep, which has used the former St. Rose de Lima Church space in some way for the past two years, held an inaugural ball Jan. 19 to officially announce its opening.

“I wanted to have something that was definitely about dancing, music and dressing up,” Aimée Hayes, Southern Rep Theatre’s producing artistic director, said of the recent opening. “It’s a chance for us to show off Southern Rep to everyone and have a good time.”

How project developed

Jonathan Leit, director of the New Orleans office of Alembic Community Development, gave a timeline of the project, beginning in 2009 when Hal Brown and other community members first identified St. Rose de Lima Parish site “as an important property that would be a hub for art, culture and entrepreneurship.”

Soon after, the Rose Community Development Corp. was established to flesh out the details and work on a long-term lease/purchase agreement with the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Brown died in 2013, but his widow, Shawn Kennedy, now president of the Rose CDC board, kept the project afloat.

By 2014, a request for a development partner was issued, and Alembic Community Development was selected. In the summer of 2016, Alembic and Rose CDC bought three buildings on the church site from the archdiocese — the 1915-built church, the 1925-built parish school that closed in 1978 at 2539 Columbus St. and a two-story building built in 1938 also on Columbus Street. The cost was $550,000.

The two entities continue to co-own the site as the Rose Collaborative.

“It’s a campus with organizations working across and with one another,” Leit said.

Site redevelopment began in earnest in summer 2017 when Rose and Alembic closed on $11.8 million in tax credits and public and private financial sources from the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, the Louisiana State Office of Community Development and others.

Led by Ryan Goote General Contractor and Metro Studio architects, construction was finished in 2018, and the buildings were put into commerce.

Southern Rep is leasing the church. Starting in the 2019-20 school year, the nonprofit Waldorf School of New Orleans will occupy the 2539 Columbus St. building. The 10,500-square-foot 2533 Columbus St. building is shared workspace for such nonprofits as the business incubator run by Fund 17, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, Kids Mart, Newcorp, Brothers Empowered to Teach and others.

Permanent theater space

The 13,000-square-foot former St. Rose de Lima Church has given Southern Rep a permanent home, something it had lost since leaving Canal Place.

Upcoming productions include “The Wolves” through Feb. 3; an original play premiere “Azul” by Christina Quintana; and “Flowers for Hallie,” celebrating of Mahalia Jackson written by and starring Troi Bechet. In September, Pamela Davis-Noland’s “Project Bayou Road,” a dramatization of people’s recorded experiences in the Bayou Road neighborhood, will debut.

“You’re going to get a variety of things, and they are all going to be excellently done,” Hayes said.

The new theater has three stages: the main Rose Theatre (approximately half of the former church’s space) with 130 seats; the Lagniappe stage that seats 60-70 and is home to post-show entertainment; and the Hal Brown Outdoor Community Stage, where free performances have been staged since 2017. For rehearsals, the Rose studio (named after the stained glass in the former church choir loft) is used.

Adding visual appeal to the space is an almost floor-to-ceiling mural by painter and muralist Langston Allston depicting Andre Cailloux — a Civil War black officer in the Union Army whose funeral service (the story goes) held at the all-white church was a nod to the end of slavery. It resulted in the “largest gathering of free and enslaved African-Americans at that time.”  

Hayes, who came on board during the theater’s Canal Place days, sees advantages of its current location.

“We’ve always wanted to be part of a community, to have a front door and neighbors,” Hayes said.

In the new space, Southern Rep not only offers live theater but a children’s story hour on the second Saturday of each month from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.; and a monthly Sunday brunch talk with food and entertainment. Brunch is a component of Care for Creatives, an initiative with the New Orleans’ Musicians’ Clinic that presents classes and workshops to help artists practice well-being.

“We have artists coming together to share their experiences and do activities together,” Hayes said. “Now that we have a good idea of what works, we will be reaching out to the community on what they want. ... Communities get stronger when they work together.”

Making community whole

Leit sees the Rose Collaborative as a contribution to the culture and history of  Bayou Road.

“The purpose was to redevelop these vacant buildings to contribute to what has been on Bayou Road for a long time,” mainly a gathering place for local families and individuals and to bring more people to see what the neighborhood has to offer, he said.

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.