St. Katherine Drexel Chapel becomes New Orleans’ symbol of resurgence

New Orleans, LA, USA

Named for Xavier University’s founder, the St. Katharine Drexel Chapel is the spiritual heart of Xavier University placed at the very center of the campus. The chapel is the first free-standing place of worship in the history of the University, which is the sole Catholic HBCU. The building is widely recognized as one of the first new buildings of the highest architectural merit completed after the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. 

An 80-foot ramp edged with raised planters mediates the required change in elevation and creates a ceremonial procession to the chapel.  
“...this new chapel will without question be one of the most sacred and cherished spaces on the campus.”
— Dr. Norman C. Francis, Former Xavier University President 
The chapel’s limestone walls and their coursing pattern provide a sense of lightness, topped with a faceted copper dome. 

Inspiring a spritual center of worship

Aligned with the location from which Pope John Paul II spoke during his 1987 campus visit, the main chapel is octagonal in plan with the altar table placed near the center of the space, referencing early Christian churches and allowing worshippers to gather closely around the altar together in a nonhierarchical community. Rising from a limestone base, a faceted copper roof shimmers in the sun, topped with a 15 foot tall cross. Worshippers can seek respite and a quiet place for reflection in the meditation chapel, whose octagonal shape rises to support a carillon of bells at its apex. The elegant and clean forms reflect St. Katharine’s path of simplicity and purity.   

Infusing uplifting light and color 

Inside, the ceiling soars to 65 feet. Sunlight streams through the main chapel through a ring of skylights and is diffused through a perforated aluminum chancel screen, a visual metaphor of starry skies and heavenly bodies. Highlighting the theme of ascension, the Risen Christ sculpture, with uplifted arms, seems to float before the chancel screen. Designed by artist José Bedia, vibrant glass windows depict the Stations of the Cross, while tapestry art glass windows by New Orleans-based glass artist Laurel Porcari add further color to the main chapel. 

Artful glass windows by renowned Caribbean artist Jose Bedia reflect the Stations of the Cross. 
“I wanted the light to come in so that you feel that you are in a space that is lit in a mysterious way.”
—Cesar Pelli FAIA, RIBA, JIA 
Skylights are positioned between the roof and the perforated chancel screen, emanating a soft glow inside the chapel.  

Sustainability to support a resilient faith community 

The chapel’s abundant daylighting reduces artificial lighting and energy demand. Low-maintenance native plants decrease potable water consumption. The orientation of the building and the location of its windows minimize solar heat gain from the subtropical New Orleans climate, reducing energy used for cooling. Supporting community wellbeing, low-VOC materials were specified to maximize indoor air quality.  

More About the Project

Principal Collaborators

  • Local Architect: Waggoner & Ball
  • Structural Engineer: Gibble Norden Champion Brown
  • MEP Engineer: AltieriSeborWieber

Project Information

  • Location: New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
  • Client: Xavier University of Louisiana
  • Size: 12,000 sq. ft. / 1,000 sq. m.
  • Completion: 2012
  • Firm Role: Full Service Architect


  • 2015, Honor Award for Religious Architecture: New Facilities, Fatih & Form, The Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art, and Architecture
  • 2014, Citation, AIA Connecticut
  • 2013, AL Lighting and Design Awards Best Use of Daylighting, Architectural Lighting Magazine
  • 2013, Lumen Citation, Illuminating Engineering Society
  • Principal Project Photography: Jeff Goldberg/ESTO