Xavier’s St. Katharine Drexel Chapel a symbol of faith
Saying St. Katharine Drexel would have been “smiling from ear to ear,” Archbishop Gregory Aymond blessed the stunning but simple chapel in her honor at Xavier University of Louisiana Oct. 6 and congratulated the university community for fulfilling the foundress’ dream of a sacred space on campus.
“It’s a blessing to see the smiles that accompany this historic and wonderful day,” Archbishop Aymond said. “There is another person who is smiling from ear to ear, and we can’t quite grasp that smile because it is bigger than this chapel. And, you know her name – Katharine Drexel.”
When the foundress of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament established Xavier University in 1925 as the country’s only institution of higher learning for black Catholics, she had architects sketch blueprints for a large, gothic-style, limestone church on campus.
But Dr. Norman C. Francis said priorities to build classroom buildings and residence halls put those plans on hold, and St. Katharine died before she could see the chapel come to fruition.
“We’ve waited almost 80 years to have a stand-alone chapel, and when you build a chapel for a saint, you have to have the best in the world,” Francis said, praising architect Cesar Pelli, who has designed some of the world’s most notable buildings, including the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, which between 1998 and 2004 were the world’s tallest at 1,483 feet.
Asked to compare the significance of building a 400-seat chapel in honor of St. Katharine – the first chapel he has ever built – Pelli said: “This is more special, of course. This goes higher up!”
Inspired by St. Katharine
Pelli said he visited the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament’s motherhouse in Bensalem, Pa., to discover more about St. Katharine’s educational philosophy and decided to keep things open and simple. In the vestibule that leads into the main body of the chapel, a quote from St. Katharine is carved into the limestone: “Oh, Lord, grant that we may love you the way you deserve to be loved.”
Over time, the chapel’s copper roof will turn green to match the roofs of most of the other buildings on Xavier’s campus.
“This being a church, it is very appropriate that it is a natural green,” Pelli said. “When the copper is installed, it is bright like a penny. Then it becomes a deep brown. In about 10 to 12 years, it should really be a bright green, a natural green. This change, this evolution, this sense of growth, is what life is about.”
He added: “I believe we have a happy space, an uplifting space, which is what religion does for you.”
Archbishop Aymond said the chapel would be a place for students, faculty members and visitors to gather for Mass and also to quietly pray during life’s joys and sorrows.
“Some will come in peaceful times, others will come with restless hearts,” he said. “Some will come with the important questions of their lives, some bearing crosses. In this sacred place, they will find the Lord Jesus present, saying, ‘Come to me all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you.’”