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American Independence Day focus: the Church in the US PETER FINNEY JR

After the hurricane, light

The floods that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005 wrought a devastating blow to New Orleans and the only Catholic university for black students in the US. Six years on, Xavier University is thriving again and a new chapel is fulfilling the dream of its founder


ust a short walk from the podium where Blessed Pope John Paul II addressed US Catholic educators in 1987, the steel framework that will support the sloping green copper roof of St Katharine Drexel

Chapel is reaching for the sky. It will at last fulfil the saint’s dream for a free-standing place of worship at Xavier University, Louisiana, the only black Catholic institute of higher education in the US, which she established in 1925. For years, her vision was confined to dusty blueprints, water- colours and, finally, computer-generated images. Now it is taking shape in steel,

cement blocks and mortar, under the direction of the world- renowned architect, César Pelli. When the chapel is formally dedicated to St Katharine by the Archbishop of New Orleans, Gregory Aymond, on 3 March next year, the top of the seven-foot cross will stand 80 feet above the ground, instantly identifiable by thousands of daily commuters. Although the chapel’s height falls considerably short of the 1,483ft Petronas Twin Towers that Pelli built in Malaysia in 1998 – still the tallest twin structures in the world – the sacred space

The new chapel, designed by César Pelli, which will be formally dedicated by the Archbishop of New Orleans next year

will carry its own historical weight. “Pelli just told me that this was a building that he needed to do,” said Dr Norman Francis, Xavier’s president since 1968.

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St Katharine was a Philadelphia heiress and founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament who used her multimillion-dollar inheritance to build schools and churches for African Americans and Native Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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Over the years, two small chapels were incorporated into the administration building at Xavier University: the first was a tiny chapel for the sisters who lived in community, the second a larger student chapel in a non - descript classroom space. By contrast, the chapel of St Katharine’s dreams was akin to a large church. Local architects working with Pelli on the current chapel project discovered the original blueprints for her ambitious proj- ect, which was never executed. “It was classic and traditional, a lot like the

Indiana limestone administration building with all this copper,” Dr Francis said. “It was like a big church you’d find in the east. It’s interesting that even though it was in the early years of the school, she had that chapel or church in her mind.”

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Over the years, academic priorities took precedence over the idea of building a sep- arate chapel. Finally, however, an appeal was launched and the university is now more than halfway towards reaching its target of US$10 million. Dr Francis’ son, Tim, made the initial contact with the Pelli firm about 10 years ago after seeing one of his buildings at the University of Idaho, and Pelli agreed to design the chapel. When Hurricane Katrina inun- dated Xavier in 2005, Pelli wrote Dr Francis a personal note at Xavier’s temporary head- quarters in Grand Coteau, Louisiana: “We’re still with you.”

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