Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Let's Make A Deal

After months of debate, a compromise has been proposed to dismantle St. Frances Cabrini Church to make way for a historic Lower 9th Ward Catholic school destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, a school official said Tuesday.

The draft memorandum of agreement was circulated late Monday by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has been trying to balance a move to preserve the storm-damaged Gentilly church, built in the 1960s and celebrated for its modern design, against desires for a successful school in a neighborhood struggling to rebound post-Katrina.

Bill Chauvin, chairman of Holy Cross School's governing board, said the draft indicates that the church will be removed to make way for the Holy Cross campus: a middle school, high school, administration buildings and a sports complex. According to the draft, the church's stained glass, altar and baptistery will be saved, he said. And the Holy Cross governing board will spend about $15,000 to hire a crane operator to remove the large cross from the top of the church, he said.

Where the church's altar is now will be the space where the church is commemorated, Chauvin said. Ideas include a garden with a statue of St. Frances Cabrini or a garden that includes the church's large cross, he said.

Robin Brou-Hatheway, a member of Friends of Cabrini, which has opposed demolition of the church, has a different view of the draft agreement.

"This is not the last word," she said. "There's a lot more to do and I'm hopeful that Cabrini Church will remain at the site."

Representatives of the school, neighborhood groups and state and federal officials are scheduled to meet Friday to sort out the final language for the agreement, Chauvin said, and mitigation details will be hammered out after that meeting.

Although some neighborhood representatives and Friends of Cabrini are invited to attend the gathering Friday, only the Louisiana State Historic Preservation Office, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, Holy Cross School's governing board and the Archdiocese of New Orleans are required to execute the memorandum of agreement, Chauvin said.

A new Holy Cross School is expected to be completed in January 2009, Chauvin said. Until then, students in grades five through 12 will be housed at the Paris Avenue site in temporary facilities, he said.

Holy Cross' 17-acre campus on the Mississippi River, just downriver from the Industrial Canal, soaked in as much as 8 feet of floodwater after Hurricane Katrina.

Initially, the Jefferson Parish School Board tried to lure Holy Cross to a site in Jefferson Parish.

But in October, the governing board of Holy Cross voted to move the school from the flood-damaged Lower 9th Ward site it had occupied since 1879 to an 18-acre site in the 5500 block of Paris Avenue occupied in recent decades by St. Frances Cabrini Church and School and the adjoining Redeemer-Seton High School. The move was welcomed by some, including the Archdiocese of New Orleans and many neighborhood residents hoping to breathe life back into their community. Others, however, including some architects, decried any plan to dismantle the church, calling it historically significant.

Under federal law, FEMA must consider whether actions involving its money will adversely affect historical structures, such as the church.

Should this proposal be accepted, a vital part of the rebuilding of Gentilly can finally proceed.

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