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New Orleans Nuns Protect Neighborhood

One of the great Oak trees on the former grounds of the Sisters of St. Joseph school and convent in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans. La. Photo: Bryan Tarnowski

Way down in New Orleans, in the Fillmore neighborhood of Gentilly, bordered by Lake Pontchartrain and the City Park, lies the largest single-owned parcel of land in the city. For now, its 25 lightly wooded acres stand empty, save for a large piece of concrete bearing the shield of the Sisters of St. Joseph. But those same sisters have just leased the parcel for $1 a year and soon, the land will be transformed into a massive water garden, a place of refuge from the storm, or rather, for the storm, for buckets of rain, gallons of floodwater to protect the surrounding neighborhoods and elevate the community. Dreamed up in response to the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, with the help of a local architect well-versed in Dutch methods of water management, these New Orleans nuns are about to build one of the largest urban wetlands in the nation, The Mirabeau Water Garden.

Most of New Orleans sits on swampland, made up of clay and peat, which doesn’t drain well. The Mirabeau Water Garden will ease the burden on the city drainage system, considered to be one of the key failures during Katrina, and is crucial to preventing future flooding. On its surface, Mirabeau will adopt the look of a city park, with pathways circling man-made lakes and trees planted on varying elevations, but underneath will lay complex system capable of diverting up to 10 million gallons of stormwater from overwhelmed city pipes, holding it for safe return after the storm has subsided. 

Borrowing 800 years of Dutch experience in working with water, architect David Waggoner designed the Mirabeau Water Garden in 2006 as a solution for rebuilding New Orleans after Katrina. Meanwhile, the Sisters of St Joseph were confronting their own post-Katrina challenges. The first floor of the congregation’s house had flooded and been gutted after the storm only to be struck by lightning less than a year later. Built in the 1950s, the house that had once held up to 150 sisters, could no longer shelter the remaining 30 who had just merged with six other St. Joseph’s communities across the country. Their finances shored up by this merger, the sisters had more flexibility in determining what to do next. City developers swooped in, but the nuns were not looking to make a pretty penny, even as they recognized the money could be reinvested for the greater good. They felt a duty to their surrounding community, one the order had inhabited since arriving from France in 1855. Waggoner’s idea was right in line with their desire to protect and enhance their neighborhood, so a deal was made. 

Today, the project is taking bids, and work will begin as soon as the pandemic allows. When finally complete, land the sisters still consider holy, rooted in generations of service, will serve the community and the planet, providing an example for other cities fighting to manage water. A land once beleaguered by fire and flood will now in the words of Sister Pat Bergen: “bless the water…”

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