St. Francis Cabrini Church
Badly damaged by the levee failure following Hurricane Katrina, St. Francis Cabrini Church was demolished despite the efforts of preservation advocates.
The St. Frances Cabrini Church stood in Gentilly, a section of New Orleans that developed after World War II; in fact, many of Cabrini’s original parishioners were war veterans. When the parish was founded in 1953, congregants met in a Quonset hut, a structure more typically used for military functions. The church’s members wanted the intimacy and warmth they experienced in the Quonset hut to be translated into their new church building, so the Curtis and Davis architectural firm included in the church’s design ceiling vaults that recalled the Quonset hut’s form. In 2005 the building was flooded with ten feet of water when the London Avenue Canal floodwall failed during Hurricane Katrina. In 2007, after a protracted and politicized struggle, the Archdiocese of New Orleans demolished the damaged church in order to build a new campus for Holy Cross High School on the site, which moved from its former location in the Lower Ninth Ward.
St. Frances Cabrini Church was named for St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850–1917), the first American citizen to be canonized. The building’s design was developed to reflect the liturgical changes established by the Second Vatican Council between 1962 and 1965, which recommended that church ceremonies (from Mass to baptism) be contained within a single space—one that would emphasize, physically and symbolically, the unity of the congregation. Thus, rather than the traditional, rectangular basilica form—which creates a hierarchy of spaces—the architects designed a square-shaped church with an interior seating arrangement, emphasizing community. Pews were arranged in three clusters, fanning out from the sanctuary, and all fifteen hundred seats were within one hundred feet of the altar.
The sanctuary was highlighted by an arched concrete canopy, which rose smoothly from four broadly spread columns through the roof to form, on the exterior, a slender, tapered spire, 135 feet in height. Beneath it was the altar, carved from a single block of golden-veined white Carrara marble. Three cantilevered barrel vaults radiated from the altar to cover the nave, each vault corresponding to one of the clusters of pews. The curved shape of these thin, prestressed concrete vaults evoked the form of the Quonset hut. A circular baptismal font in the church’s narthex was dramatically illuminated by a domed skylight. The church’s exterior walls were of textured brick. The clarity and simplicity of the design gave the structure a monumental appearance while responding to the small-scale residential qualities of its post–World War II neighborhood. Sidney Folse Jr. of the Curtis and Davis firm was the project architect for the church.
Adjacent to the building was St. Frances Cabrini Elementary School (1500 Prentiss Avenue), built in 1957 and also designed by Curtis and Davis. It consisted of single-story, steel-frame linear units of brick and glass, each one-room deep to allow for cross ventilation, arranged parallel to each other and linked by covered walkways.
In fall 2006 the Archdiocese of New Orleans announced that rather than repairing the damage from the post-Katrina flood, it would tear down St. Frances Cabrini Church and its school so that Holy Cross School could move to the seventeen-acre site. Because the new Holy Cross would resemble its original campus, built in the early nineteenth century, the Holy Cross governing board rejected the possibility of refurbishing St. Frances Cabrini for reuse because of its sharply contrasting mid-twentieth-century style. Parishioners and neighborhood activists attempted to stop the demolition. The Preservation Resource Center, the leading preservation organization in the city, declared that the church was “probably not historic,” but after the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) conducted a study, its final report argued that St Frances Cabrini Church was “an exceptionally important example of its building type for being among the most, probably the most, singular design for a house of worship in New Orleans erected during the post–World War II period.” Nevertheless, the church and school and church were razed in 2007.
Adapted from Karen Kingsley’s Buildings of Louisiana, part of the Buildings of the United States series commissioned by the Society of Architectural Historians (www.sah.org) and published by Oxford University Press.