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Mirabeau Water Garden: plan to divert water

Twenty-five acres in Gentilly, that before Hurricane Katrina was the site of the Sisters of St. Joseph motherhouse, will soon morph into a water mitigation pilot, a community park and educational outlet called Mirabeau Water Garden.

On Jan. 25, the Congregation of St. Joseph officially handed over the land to the city of New Orleans in a cooperative agreement that coincided with the announcement that the city would receive federal money to partially fund the $25 million project.

At the ceremony were approximately 20 sisters from the Congregation of St. Joseph, Governor John Bel Edwards, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and others. St. Joseph Sister Pat Bergen, a member of the leadership team, offered a benediction, speaking of how the project is in line with Pope Francis’ recent encyclical about caring for our earth “Laudato si.”

The congregation will lease the property to the city for $1 a year for 99 years, contingent on completion of one of the proposed water mitigation designs from Waggonner & Ball Architects and that the sisters would have a place at the table deciding other uses for the property, Sister Pat said.

In the works for years
It was the sisters’ love for New Orleans that ultimately led them to the agreement with the city instead of selling the property for profit. Sister Pat said the congregation has had a long and harmonious relationship with New Orleans – first arriving in 1858 and building a novitiate at the Mirabeau site in 1952. Over the years, the St. Joseph sisters have impacted the elderly through its People Program, children through a preschool and have provided solace, nurturing and love through retreats and other events.

Ideas for uses other than a motherhouse for the Mirabeau land first surfaced in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina dumped seven feet of flood waters on the property, flooding the motherhouse. The building was further damaged when lightning caused a fire that destroyed it, resulting in its 2007 demolition. The property has been vacant ever since.

Then, in 2008, the nearly 700 vowed St. Joseph sisters nationwide restructured seven St. Joseph orders into one Congregation of St. Joseph and plotted a course for its future. They made promises that included: risking resources to impact systemic change; taking steps to strengthen, heal and renew the earth; and networking worldwide to bring about a global culture shift from institutionalized power and privilege to one of inclusivity and mutuality.

So, in 2011, when architect David Waggonner from Waggonner & Ball Architects approached the sisters about the city’s Urban Water Plan, the timing was right to fulfill their promises to work and inspire others and preserve the earth.

“We kept vigil with the land,” Sister Pat said. “We knew the land wanted to be used for something – a project beyond our imagination that would contribute to helping our dear neighbors as we always had in New Orleans. “

Waggonner had been working with Dutch and American water management experts on the city’s Urban Water Plan and thought the sisters’ property was perfect.

“When we talked to David Waggonner, there was a lot of excitement around what was being said,” Sister Pat said.  “The local sisters in New Orleans were in favor. Within a very short time, we decided this was what we wanted to do with the property. We knew it was an answer to our prayers.”

The city of New Orleans began a collaboration in 2014 with the Congregation of St. Joseph to advance the Mirabeau Water Garden. This project is a flagship green infrastructure pilot for the City’s Integrated Infrastructure and Resilience Strategies, and was a centerpiece of its application for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s  National Disaster Resilience Competition. 

The city was approved for a $12.5 million grant from FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Program for design and construction of flood water management components of the Mirabeau Water Garden. The first allocation of $650,000 from the FEMA grant, released in 2015, was used for preliminary engineering designs of the project by a team led by Waggonner and Ball Architects. This is called the “30-percent design” that includes basic engineering features. Later funds will be released after the design has been completed and the efficacy of the project has been confirmed, said Prisca Weems, Stormwater Manager for the city of New Orleans, said.  

Additional funds are anticipated from a $141.3 million award to the city that will come from HUD’s National Disaster Resilience Competition, Weems said.

Weems confirmed that current engineering studies of the preliminary design for the Mirabeau Water Garden show that the site has the capability to store approximately 9.5 million gallons of storm water in a series of green infrastructure and stormwater management features. In essence, the land will be a holding tank where water – that would back up in drains along Mirabeau Avenue  and Owens Boulevard in the Filmore neighborhood during heavy rains or storm surge – could be redirected until a storm passes and then slowly released back into the system.

“This will change how water is viewed in New Orleans and Louisiana,” Ed Sutoris, manager of property and projects for the Congregation of St. Joseph, said. “We think just for this pilot it can significantly impact the flooding of the surrounding 3,785 acres.”

“This water garden will be a beautiful park where people can be renewed and refreshed by nature as well as play in it,” Sister Pat said.

Design completion and start of construction for Mirabeau Water Garden is anticipated to be in the summer of 2017, the city said.

The next step for the sisters is to look for partners to provide programming such as sports and environmental education. In the meantime, architects and engineers will hold meetings to inform neighbors about the project, she said.

Through Mirabeau Water Garden, the Congregation of St. Joseph’s legacy will live on. A small memorial garden will be reected near oak trees on the property and include a crest of the congregation saved from the motherhouse.

Sister Pat sees Mirabeau Gardens as “a place where people could be nurtured in beauty while contemplating nature,” a place where people can play and learn about water sustainability. “It’s all based on a love for the city and love for the common good.”

Christine Bordelon can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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