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Flood and Sacrifice: How an Old Convent Could Help Save New Orleans

Updated: Apr 10, 2021

A group of nuns in New Orleans is offering up its flooded former convent site to help protect the city during future such disasters. One of the nuns, Sister Barbara Hughes, is a Morganza native.

The Sisters of St. Joseph are using the ruins of their motherhouse, which was flooded during Hurricane Katrina, to create one of the country’s largest urban wetlands.

By Matthew Teague | Published Aug. 26, 2020

NEW ORLEANS — Fifteen years ago, Hurricane Katrina flooded a convent in the heart of New Orleans, scattering its nuns. Now the Sisters of St. Joseph are using the ruins of their motherhouse to create one of the country’s largest urban wetlands. It will absorb millions of gallons of runoff during storms and will, the nuns hope, help save their city.

Two storms hit Louisiana’s coast this week — Tropical Storm Marco on Monday, followed by Hurricane Laura, which was expected to make landfall well west of New Orleans late Wednesday — pouring rain and reminding New Orleans residents of the city’s vulnerability to floods. City leaders have long been scrambling to find ways to cope with the downpours that have so imperiled the city over the years.

Sister Barbara Hughes recently recalled the devastation that past high waters brought as she walked the grounds of her old convent before this week’s storms. She is 84 and barely five feet tall, but she could see all 25 low-lying acres from that height, and she pointed to landmarks that survived.

“It’s grown up a bit now, but there’s the lemon tree,” she said. “A sister planted it just outside the kitchen.”

In coming years the grounds will lie largely submerged under an urban lake that will rise when floodwaters drench the city — a shelter from storms, as the convent always was, in a sense. The project is complex, for topographical reasons; the nearby Bayou St. John sits below sea level, for instance, and the convent site sits lower still. Over the decades, the site has absorbed more than rainwater.

“This land has imbibed the lives of all the people who came here,” Sister Hughes said. “Some lived here, some worked here, some came as children to the school. There’s a sacredness in that.”

Only a few nuns survive today, and they are aging, but those who remain are determined to see this last endeavor through.

“I’m not a religious man,” said Ramiro Diaz, one of the architects designing it. “But when I hear the nuns talk about their love for the city, their love for the land — it’s beautiful.”

Sister Hughes grew up on the Mississippi River, mostly in Morganza, La., about two hours northwest of New Orleans. Morganza is known for its spillway, designed to relieve flooding from the Mississippi. Her father worked as an excavator for a crew that traveled up and down the river, dredging its bottom and shoring up levees.

In summers the Sisters of St. Joseph would visit Morganza to teach religion classes for Catholic children, which she attended. Then in 1955, when she turned 19, she decided to join the order. She moved to New Orleans, where she settled into the motherhouse — the order’s principal convent — called Mirabeau. There she learned how the Sisters had come from France in the 1850s, and kept as their motto a verse from the Gospel of John: “That all may be one.”

The Sisters saw the verse as a directive to not live cloistered, but to be active neighbors in their city. So they set up a school for the young, and an assisted-living facility for the old. They protested gun violence in New Orleans. They joined local civil rights marches during the 1960s, and peace marches during the Vietnam War in the 1970s. They protested the death penalty, and the Sisters’ activism achieved global renown after one of them, Sister Helen Prejean, wrote about her prison work in the best-selling book “Dead Man Walking.” While other religious orders sequestered themselves in quiet contemplation, the Sisters of St. Joseph were different. They moved out into the world.

None of them knew back in those years that the city itself would one day need saving.

“It was like watching someone you love die,” Sister Barbara Hughes said of the damage to the convent.

New Orleans is famous now for being the city below sea level. Even people who live there often wonder why its founders chose to settle in a natural bowl centuries ago.

But they did not. Humans sank New Orleans, in a war with water.

For many years, even after the Civil War, the entire city still sat above sea level. But developers saw an opportunity in the city’s marshes: They could “reclaim” wetlands, they said, and sell the slow-draining land as real estate.

It was a mistake. “While they feared and hated the swamp, those low-lying areas did a fine job of storing excess water — be it from rain, storm surge or river overtopping,” said Richard Campanella, a geographer and author with the Tulane University School of Architecture.

The mistake compounded, as inventors and investors devised more efficient pumps. The spongy soil settled lower and lower as it dried, so that today about half the city does sit below sea level, and there is a never-ending battle with water. Pumps shunt away rainfall, and levees hold back the sea. The complex system creates an ever-deepening bowl.

In 2005, with the arrival of Hurricane Katrina, the bowl was breached.

The Sisters fled that storm, mostly to Baton Rouge. When they returned they found the first floor of their three-story convent ruined by floodwater. They spent more than a million dollars, raiding their retirement fund, to gut the first floor and remove muck and mold.

Then in 2006, before they could move back in, lightning struck the roof and burned the third floor. Then water from Bayou St. John, scooped up and dropped by helicopters fighting a nearby fire, destroyed the second.

Their repairs had been for nothing. Their motherhouse was gone.

“It was like watching someone you love die,” Sister Hughes said.

A rendering of the Mirabeau Water Garden.

During that same time, a New Orleans architect named David Waggonner had set out to find a solution to the city’s water problem. He traveled to the Netherlands, where the Dutch are pioneering a new approach to rising seas: Instead of fighting the water, they are finding ways to welcome it by building lakes and reservoirs to absorb floods.

“Water comes first, and we have to recognize that,” Mr. Waggonner said recently at his office in New Orleans’s Garden District. “Remember, the creation myth starts with water covering the earth.”

The difficulty of the Dutch approach, in a dense city like New Orleans, is finding land where floodwater can settle.

The city has been scouring its dense historic neighborhoods, where many homes are built right on the street front, for even the tiniest places to catch and slowly release storm water. Sometimes that means “a little underground storage about the size of a shoe box,” said Mary Kincaid, a senior project manager for the city.

Mr. Waggonner’s search for such treasure, some years ago, brought him to the nuns.

After the flooding and the fire, the Sisters had demolished what was left of the convent and decided to find another purpose for the land. The truth was, they realized, they were a dying congregation. Their numbers in New Orleans had declined to just 40 or so nuns from 120, and they were aging. They did not need sprawling grounds.

The site of the convent is one of the largest privately owned parcels in New Orleans — a full 25 acres — and developers would have paid millions of dollars for it. But the nuns remembered their commitment to neighborliness — “that all may be one” — and instead of selling they decided to lease the site to the city for a dollar a year.

As part of the plan, Mr. Waggonner and his associate Mr. Diaz drew up an ambitious plan to recreate the old wetlands in a new urban landscape, surrounded by thousands of acres of residential neighborhoods.

The site, which will become the Mirabeau Water Garden, will collect 10 million gallons of storm water into a slow-draining lake, in the Dutch style, rather than shunting it immediately into the gulf. It will slow the city’s sinking, Mr. Waggonner said, by recharging the groundwater underfoot. Water-friendly trees and grasses, over time, will grow once again.

David Waggonner drew up an ambitious plan to recreate the old wetlands in a new urban landscape.

The city plans to start converting the site in about four months at a cost of $16.3 million, using money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The project — the bureaucracy, the building — will take a long time. But Sister Hughes already sees it in her mind’s eye. “This corner here will have a small memorial for the Sisters,” she said. “A place people can pray.”

The beginning of the Christian story, she said, is an act of sacrifice for salvation. The Sisters want to embody that for the city, she said.

“It’s not that anything miraculous ever happened here,” she said. “We just want to be good neighbors.”

Correction:Aug. 28, 2020

An earlier version of this article misstated the title of Mary Kincaid. She is a senior project manager for the city of New Orleans, not the director of the city’s Office of Resilience and Sustainability.


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