New Orleans — The St. Katharine Drexel Chapel opens its doors today, at long last fulfilling Drexel’s more than 80-year-old vision for a freestanding house of worship on the Xavier University campus.
Encased in an octagonal copper roof, each element of the building was custom-designed, from the stained glass windows depicting Cuban-American artist Jose Bedia’s 12 stations of the cross, to the walls made of Portuguese limestone, to the risen Christ behind the altar that was hand-carved out of a single piece of linden wood in Italy and shipped over on a boat.
“I don’t know if there is another church or chapel in the United States with such a unique design,” Xavier President Dr. Norman Francis said.
The building, designed by architect Cesar Pelli, is his smallest amid a lengthy and prestigious portfolio that includes the Petronas Twin Towers in Malaysia, which were the tallest buildings in the world from 1998-2004.
The chapel will be dedicated and consecrated by Archbishop Gregory Aymond at an invitation only Mass on Saturday at 4 p.m. A series of special Masses — for students, donors and faculty — is scheduled for the coming week, along with public events.
The idea behind the shape of the roof, said David Coon, project manager of Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, is one of “frozen motion,” embodying the ideas of upward motion and resurrection — not just in Catholic liturgy, but also tied to Xavier students and the city as whole.
Over the next five to seven years, the roof will turn green, which along with the light color of the building’s walls will make the chapel fit in with other structures on campus, Coon said.
The design for the 450-seat chapel was formalized just before Hurricane Katrina flooded the campus with 4 feet of water in 2005. Construction began in early 2010. Kenneth St. Charles, vice president for Institutional Advancement, said the $10 million project has been funded entirely with private donations, though they are still raising funds to meet the cost.
“For me,” Francis said, “it is closing the cycle of a vision that Katharine Drexel had right after she built the two main buildings.”
On her original blueprints for the campus dating to the late 1920s, Drexel included a free-standing chapel. However, over the years other more academic-focused needs took priority, St. Charles said.
The choice of the octagonal shape, and also the layout of a smaller meditation room at the rear of the chapel, is rooted in the ancient designs of religious structures in Rome, Coon said. The circular design promotes inclusion, with the congregation wrapping around the priest, he said.
Outside, a garden patio wraps around the meditation room encircled with stone walls inscribed with the names of the chapel’s donors. A fountain with three circles sits in a corner of the garden, representing the Holy Trinity.
The chapel is placed centrally on campus, and the large cross on top of the roof is visible from the interstate. But with traffic rushing by just 60 feet away, much thought was put into making sure that once inside, the environment is one of peace, Coon said.
“It’s a space where Xavier students can come and turn inward, and look into themselves,” Coon said.
The chapel sits on a direct axis to the spot where Pope John Paul II spoke at Xavier in 1987. At the chapel’s entrance, 80-foot ramps reflect the idea of a Catholic procession but also meet FEMA elevation requirements.
The idea behind the design was to create a place that was uplifting, Coon said. Upon entering, the brightness and the abundance of natural light—without any actual visible windows or skylights to the outside — is one of the most striking elements. The materials were selected specifically for their lightness, Coon said, from the maple pews to the limestone walls and granite floors, which were finished using a “bush hammer” technique to resemble the floors of monasteries in Europe.
Throughout the day, the light inside changes with the movement of the sun and clouds, casting varying paths and patterns of illumination within the chapel. The perforated aluminum ceiling is a modernized version of a “chancel screen,” Coon said. But instead of the traditional purpose of creating a division between the lay people and the priest, the one in the Drexel chapel “embraces everyone within.” Behind the aluminum, a special material was sprayed on the walls to absorb sound.
“It was designed to be a welcoming place for students whatever their faith,” St. Charles said.
Francis said that at any time of the day, the chapel will be open as a place where the Xavier community can sit, pray, meditate or just enjoy the quietude of the sanctuary.
The chapel has a “majestic feeling in its simplicity,” Francis said.
At the time of Xavier’s establishment in 1925, Drexel’s title was “mother.” In 2000, she was canonized a saint. Drexel’s life was largely dedicated to helping African Americans and Native Americans, a mission captured in a hand-carved wooden statue by the chapel’s front door depicting Drexel with two children at her side.
“I always wanted to fulfill that dream of hers,” Francis said. “We can now celebrate as she watches over us as Saint Katharine.”
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