Reborn St. Rose de Lima campus near Bayou Road brings back memories


BY KELLY PARKER | Special to The Advocate AUG 24, 2018 – 9:00 AM (0)

Mike Cancienne and I said it in unison, looking at the floor and what resembled the markings of a onetime serving line.

Decades had passed, and the building, on Columbus Street in the Bayou Road neighborhood of New Orleans, now operates as an entrepreneurial hub.

The furniture is modern, and the walls freshly painted. Our school days are well in the past.

Still, walking onto the campus of my very first grammar school, once known as St. Rose de Lima, brought back overpowering memories, like that of Ms. Bonura, the school secretary known by all. When Mike shared a photo he had of her, red hair, glasses and all, it was 1977 all over again.

‘Walking into the cafeteria (and soon after) the school building for the first time in 41 years; I found a rush of emotion flooding over me,” Cancienne said.

I spent kindergarten through third grade at St. Rose de Lima Catholic School, and Mike was a member of the class of 1975 — a student from kindergarten through eighth grade. The school closed in 1978.

Within 10 minutes of sitting across from each other at a recent tour of the renovated campus, Mike and I were no longer strangers. We shared stories, soon surrendering to tears. And we had only made it to the first building.

Thanks to the New Orleans Architecture Foundation, Mike, myself and a few others took a tour and heard a lecture at St. Rose recently. We got to revisit the three-building campus in the 7th Ward, off North Broad Avenue, which is now part of the Rose Collaborative.

The Rose Community Development Corp. and Alembic Community Development have partnered to redevelop these vacant, historic properties.

According to Alembic director Jonathan Leit, planning initially began around 2009-2010; when many different stakeholders and community leaders in the 7th Ward and Treme neighborhood identified St. Rose de Lima as a site to create an arts and education campus. The concept was led by developer Hal Brown.

“His family, for generations, was from the 7th Ward, so he had deep roots there,” Leit explained. “He moved away, but eventually came back and was also instrumental in the Refresh Project on North Broad Avenue and Bienville,” the Mid-City Whole Foods site.

Brown, along with others, formed the Rose Community Development Corp., and the nonprofit struck a long-term lease with the Archdiocese of New Orleans in 2010 to eventually renovate and revive the campus.

A hub for the arts, business
Brown died of cancer in 2013, but his widow kept the Rose CDC going. Alembic came aboard in 2014 and serves as co-owner of the campus, along with the majority owner Rose CDC, which remains involved in the process.

The $11.7-million project has investors that include the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, the state Office of Community Development, the National Trust Community Investment Corp., U.S. Bank and the Reinvestment Fund of Philadelphia.

What many locals affectionately remember as a church and school is being transformed into a new 1.5-acre hub for arts, education and entrepreneurship.

This project is completing construction, opening incrementally during the year. It includes a performing arts space, a school serving kids from early childhood to eighth grade, office space and a community business incubator.

The old grammar school building will soon house a new group of students with the Waldorf School of New Orleans, a private school that integrates academics with the arts, culture and community. The building temporarily houses the New Orleans Career Center, New Harmony High and Operation Spark.

That familiar cafeteria on the first floor now serves as co-working space and a resource center for emerging businesses, and the building is already home to familiar names such as the Louisiana Philharmonic, KidSmart, NewCorp, Fund 17 and Brothers Empowered 2 Teach.

According to Michael Grote, director of building programs for Alembic, the building was in use until Katrina. The space, which took on about an inch of water, and the first floor still functioned as a cafeteria for a local lunch program. Renovators found a menu dated Friday, Aug. 26, 2005.

There was minimal damage to the school building on Columbus Street and to the church that sits near the corner of Bayou Road and North Broad.

Details remembered
Cancienne slowly walked into what was his fifth-grade classroom. The classroom numbers are still above the doors.

‘I felt the years slip off me; I felt like a child again,” he said. “I was surprised by how many details I remembered about the building.”

The stage on the first floor, where countless Christmas plays and graduation ceremonies were held, seemed much smaller now.

But inside the former church, a theater is being installed, the long-awaited new home of Southern Rep Theater.

The unique design, a “box” installed inside the church, means that the theater hasn’t compromised the history of the beloved building.

“You can remove the theater box and it’s still a church,” Lait said. “The 2539 (Columbus St.) building is pretty much the way it was; the two other buildings have only slight differences. Historic treatment given to the buildings is critical.”

Many of the exquisite stained-glass windows and the pool-blue vaulted ceiling remain. The pews have been removed for risers to accommodate about 125 people. A portion of the celebrated altar has made way for an orchestra pit.

Southern Rep’s offices and staff have begun the moving process, and construction is slated to be completed for opening night, Oct. 3.

New meets old
The arts- and entrepreneur-based entity will be the latest addition to this now thriving thoroughfare, which has welcomed businesses including Uber, The Half Shell on the Bayou and CupCake Fairies. High-end tavern Whiskey and Sticks has joined fixtures like Jamaican eatery Coco Hut, the Domino Sound Record Shack and King and Queen Emporium International. Vera Warren and her cultural touchstone, Community Book Center, will have a new neighbor.

The church building — Southern Rep’s new home — is the largest property. Leit said they looking to fit in and contribute to the success of the area.

“We wanted to bring amenities to the area; we wanted it to be amenities that are serving the families and people that have been there forever, as well as newcomers.” he said.

It’s been nearly 40 years since this much activity has taken place on the campus. As Grote stated, the buildings were salvageable but needed to find the right tenants.

An official ribbon-cutting ceremony is Oct. 4, on the heels of Southern Rep’s opening night.

“I told (Michael Grote) after the tour, that I felt like a man who hears his loved one’s heart beating in someone else’s chest,” Cancienne said. “The heart of St. Rose de Lima church and school lives on, not exactly as I remember, but still with a purpose.

For more information on The St. Rose de Lima campus and the Rose Collaborative, visit