Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The sun sets on Cabrini Church

They say you have to break some eggs if you want to make an omelet. The curved concrete shell that covered Saint Frances Cabrini Church proved somewhat more resistant than an eggshell, but it cracked and shattered nonetheless.

It marks the end of an era, that’s for sure.

I was still at work on Tuesday when my Darling Wife called me with the news. “They’re tearing down the church. A bunch of people are parked by the side of the road watching it.”

About an hour later I passed there on the way home. There certainly were a lot of people there. Many I recognized as neighbors from down the street from me. Some had simply come out from their houses across Paris Avenue. One lady leaned on the rail of her FEMA Travel Trailer and saw all she needed to see.

The demolition of Cabrini Church in New Orleans.

A lot of cameras. A lot of elderly ladies with long faces. A lot of men with their hands on their hips, shaking their heads as if to say, “What can you do? Nothing.”

By the time I arrived, the machines had stopped for the day. A few workers were still on site getting ready to wrap up the day. I saw one of them gather some bricks in her arms. Several feet away, two ladies waited outside the construction fence. The worker dropped the bricks by the fence and pulled it up from the bottom. “I got three for each of you,” she said. The two women scrambled to collect their souvenirs.

Collecting souvenirs from St. Frances Cabrini Church, New Orleans.

One of my neighbors, Kenny, was there. He and his wife were photographed by The Times-Picayune as they watched the church where they were married get smashed apart. “It’s sad, but it’s good,” she said. “It’s a new beginning.”

I also snapped a few photographs as the sun set on Cabrini Church. The broken cross still hung from her sleek spire. (Trivia: the cross was broken by Hurricane Cindy a few weeks before any of us had even heard of Katrina. All Hurricane Katrina did was turn the cross to point in another direction.)

There were no last-minute heroics as far as I could tell. The wrecking ball worked the landmark building into rubble without any of the theatrics that had occurred some weeks ago when the plan to demolish the church had been announced. But there were many sad faces on the street that day.

Hurricane Katrina flooded Cabrini Church in New Orleans.

There were a few Holy Cross shirts in the crowd as well. Some had brought lawn chairs and set up on the neutral ground to watch the show. They were the happy ones this day, as the useless hulk of concrete and brick was finally being removed from the site. Holy Cross has announced plans to build its new school on the site, with no room for 40-some-year-old church. The school plans to erect all new buildings, albeit with architecture that echoes the traditions of their 130-year-old campus they are abandoning in the Lower Ninth Ward.

I wonder if I’m the only one who sees irony in that.

I love my neighborhood, Vista Park. But by a strange twist of logic, I think we’re tearing down the wrong building.

Throughout the neighborhood are slab-on-grade, ranch style, suburban American houses. They were constructed before there ever was a FEMA or a National Flood Insurance Program. Consequently, pretty much all of them are below the 100-year Base Flood Elevation. Somehow, the owners of many of them think it appropriate to fix ‘em up and move right back in. They made no effort whatsoever to elevate or flood proof their homes.

Cabrini Church, on the other hand, was a landmark, a genuine statement of architecture as it was practiced in the 1960’s. Its owners decided it was not worthy of renovation, and they labored tirelessly with government agencies to clear the way for demolition.

It seems to me the church should be spared and the houses demolished and replaced—not the other way around.

I wonder if I’m the only one who sees irony in that.

Ultimately, this is just one man’s opinion. I don’t own a share in Cabrini Church or Holy Cross. You didn’t see me picketing or writing impassioned letters to the newspaper over this. It’s not for me to say.

I will simply note in this blog that in the first days of June 2007, the skyline of Gentilly was permanently changed, and that many more changes are rapidly coming.

It marks the beginning of an era, that’s for sure.


GentillyGirl said...

As one who fought for the move of Holy Cross to Gentilly, I must state that I'm sorry the church had to go.

I happen to believe that the man many refer to as Jesus does understand the trade-offs we are making here in Gentilly. He'd ask you, "What's more important: a building or the laughter and teaching of children?"

Understand that the church had to go in order for children to learn, to understand Life and the purpose of Living. They will carry what we all have learned from the disaster of two years ago. Hopefully they'll realize that their Futures are more valuable to us than our memories.

Yes, this hurt many people, but think of the Future and those bright little minds walking into said Future.

The Goddess tells me it was the right choice, and off to edge of my sight, a bearded man with long hair is saying, "Right choice.".

May all find Peace over this.

Tim said...

Ah yes, it's for the children. I'm afraid I don't concur with that rationale. The Archdiocese of New Orleans closed two schools, St. Frances Cabrini Elementary and Redeemer High, which were co-ed and provided opportunities for children K-12. They traded that for an all boys school that serves only 5-12.

I agree that given the choice of keeping a flooded, empty building or making way for a functioning school, the choice made is the correct one.



mominem said...

I went by this morning it was truly sad. You could see just enough of the church remaining to know that it was a building designed with care and love. Something not likely to be replaced in this generation.

I am happy to see Holy Cross move into the neighborhood, that does not make the loss of an irreplacable landmark any less tragic.

As always great post Tim. I check in often looking for your gems.

Sophmom said...

I'm sorry that I never saw it on any of my trips to your fair city, but I read Mark's loving posts about it and his connection to it and my heart hurts for his loss. Mominem is right, Tim, another beautiful post. You gave me chills.

What's coolest though, is that I could just hear the musical cadence of Gentilly Girl's voice in her post. Must... visit.... soon. *sigh*

Carl G said...

I can agree with Gentilly Girl but have a difference with her on how to get there. The ARCHNO had a golden opportunity to be a leader in the re-vitalization of the neighborhood but decided against being a part of it. The parish had enough insurance money to fix the church. This is a fact even admitted by the ARCHNO and Holy Cross. The ARCHNO could have then applied to FEMA, as Holy Cross has done, for a grant to re-build the Grammar School. What spurred the development in this area was the location of a church and a grammar school. It's been proven that people will move near a grammar school for their children. People tend to stay away from high schools due to traffic, parking, and other problems associated with teenagers. The Archdiocese has missed a golden opportunity to do something special in New Orleans and decided to side with greed and hold the insurance money. They have also sent the bill for the demolition of the church and school for over $780,000 to the parish which does not even have any funds available. What a revolting situation this has turned out to be.

KC said...


Your afterthought on the issue of renovating Vista Park's at-grade ranch house kind of gets lost in the crush of genuine religiosity. For my part the failure of leadership at all levels to help folks understand the risks of not elevating ranks up there with the worst of them.

There is a truely unshared vision about this critical public safety issue. Almost two years later and we still don't have the IPET's statement of risk which, had it been available should have guided our decisions and the affordability of flood insurance.

I'm not sure what to make of the ACSE's 6/4 report since it is corrupt on the ACSE website but the press release seems to minimize the culpability of institutions that should have erred on the side of safety - not a good "spin" in my view.

GentillyGirl said...

Yes, the ARCHNO is the actual demon in all of this. They decided the community and the Church's parishioners were were not to be considered in the decision. We on the GCIA's Board DID know of ARCHNO's decisions, and we couldn't allow a dead thing to lay as a time-bomb in the middle of a good neighborhood.

Think of the number of ARCHNO's properties there are that lie unused, un-repaired... rotting in the midst of vibrant communities Pre and Post-Flood.

Tim, may there always be Peace between us as this process continues.

Carl... ARCHNO is not going to do anything to help the City unless they PROFIT. ARCHNO now admits their mistake on this one. May they decide to rebuild and energize their properties to the city.

Sophmom, what I stated was meant as a balm to Gentilly and to my soul. We who fought to bring Holy Cross to Gentilly aren't the enemy, but those who knew the realities of the players and the situation in all of this.

The Archdiocese seems to care more for their income than the needs of it's people.

As a Priestess to the Lady, I would never have let a Sanctuary such as St. Francis Cabrini ever go away, but, I'm not the Archdiocese.