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XULA's St. Katharine Drexel Chapel celebrating 10 years on Saturday

The award-winning campus church at Xavier University of Louisiana will celebrate an anniversary Mass on Saturday, following a recent visit to the chapel from a Vatican cardinal.

(Architect Magazine)

Xavier University of Louisiana will celebrate a special Mass for the 10th anniversary of the dedication of its award-winning St. Katharine Drexel Chapel on Saturday, October 15th at 4pm CT in New Orleans.

The nation’s Catholic HBCU announced the news earlier this month, just days after a visit to the chapel from Cardinal Peter Turkson of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences in late September.

The chapel, one of the newest buildings on campus, was one of the school’s long-term projects completed after Hurricane Katrina, a devastating 2005 storm that rendered much of the school’s campus unusable.

The weeklong dedication ceremonies for the chapel took place from October 6-11, 2012 and included multiple donor, staff, and student Masses; a social justice panel event; and a citywide gospel choir concert featuring groups from local Black parishes.

According to Architectural Record, the school previously had no freestanding chapel and originally began plans for a chapel in honor of St. Katharine Drexel following her canonization in 2000 as just the second US-born Catholic saint.

Aided by a sizable inheritance from her father Francis Drexel—equivalent to ~$200 million today—St. Katharine had established the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and created and/or funded Black and Native American Catholic schools around the country, including XULA, which she founded in 1925.

Her name now graces one of the most lauded modern buildings in the city, and the first religious building designed by the Pelli Clarke Pelli firm, under the leadership of the Argentinian-American architecture luminary Cesar Pelli (of Petronas Towers fame).

Built at a cost of $10M, the 12,000 square-foot LEED Gold certified structure has received various awards since its unveiling, including from the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES), the American Institute of Architects, and the Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art and Architecture.

“It feels like an oasis,” reads the jury comments from Faith & Form for the latter award.

The structure is said to have been inspired by Drexel’s own simplicity of life, displaying a minimalist approach with an emphasis on natural lighting and features, and limestone walls matching the pattern of Drexel’s original tomb in Pennsylvania. The edifice’s octagonal shape is an explicit throwback to the roots of Christianity, in which several early churches were built with a similar orientation.

In the worship space, a 12-foot tall, Black-featured “Risen Christ” hovers above the altar, while the flanking walls display an Afrocentric take on the Stations of the Cross, designed by the Cuban artist José Bedia.

The chapel itself seats 430 occupants, and serves as the site for Sunday Masses as well as the liturgies and commencement ceremonies of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies, which meets on campus every summer.

In 2018, XULA received a $1.5M donation from the Gayle and Tom Benson Charitable Foundation, a portion of which was dedicated to the chapel’s maintenance needs. Its sanctuary was thereafter renamed for the billionaire philanthropist couple.

Saturday’s Mass in New Orleans will be celebrated in person, preceded by veneration of a relic of St. Katharine in the chapel from 2:30 to 3:30pm. Prospective attendees can register on the XULA website here. Registration is also required for those wishing to participate via livestream.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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