St. Katharine Drexel Chapel, Xavier University of Louisiana

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New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
12,000 square feet / 1,000 square meters

Named for Xavier University’s founder, the St. Katharine Drexel Chapel is a new central place of worship on campus. It has an octagonal plan, respecting the liturgical directions of Vatican II, with a limestone base crowned by a faceted copper roof topped with a 4.5-meter-tall (15-foot) cross. The building acknowledges the materials and colors of Xavier’s campus buildings and the architectural tradition of octagonal religious structures.

The building is raised 1.2 meters (4 feet) above grade, aligned with the place from which Pope John Paul II spoke during his 1987 campus visit. A 24-meter (80-foot) ramp edged with raised planters mediates the required change in elevation and creates a ceremonial procession to the chapel. Upon reaching the building, worshippers pass through a set of maple-and-glass doors into the narthex. This low-ceilinged entrance hall is capped by a skylight that affords a view of the rooftop cross.

Inside the 430-seat sanctuary, the ceiling soars to 19 meters (65 feet). Sunlight enters the space through a ring of skylights and is diffused through a perforated aluminum chancel screen. Colorful art glass windows surround the main chapel. Windows designed by artist José Bedia depict the Stations of the Cross; those by New Orleans glass artisan Laurel Porcari have a tapestry-like design.

Directly adjacent to the main sanctuary is the 40-seat day chapel, expressed on the exterior below the bell tower as a smaller octagonal form. Other rooms, including work and vesting sacristies, a reconciliation room, and a conference room, are distributed in plan between the two sanctuaries. A meditation garden surrounds the day chapel outside the building.

The chapel is designed to achieve a Silver LEED rating. Sustainable design strategies include abundant daylight to reduce artificial lighting and energy demand and low-maintenance native plants for landscaping to decrease potable water consumption. The orientation of the building and the location of its windows minimize solar heat gain, reducing energy used for cooling. All woods for furniture and millwork are from certified sources. Low-VOC materials are specified to maximize indoor air quality. The day chapel is intended to be used for services with lower attendance, thereby minimizing the loads on the mechanical systems for temperature control.