New life for historic monastery
In transporting Disney World clean to the French Quarter after Katrina, making the infamously dirty streets at least temporarily litter-free and lemony fresh, Sidney Torres IV transformed a vital but otherwise pedestrian function of government into a marketing executive’s dream.
Picking up the garbage and cleaning the streets suddenly had become glamorous work.
Now the real estate developer and entrepreneur, noted also for creating a first-alert communications system to fight crime in the French Quarter, is ready to roll out his next ambitious project.
On Feb. 23, Torres purchased from the Archdiocese of New Orleans the former Discalced Carmelite Sisters monastery on North Rampart Street, which occupies more than 40,000 square feet behind 25-foot walls that kept the cloistered nuns in serenity, solitude and prayer for nearly a century.
The purchase price was not released, but the archdiocese will use the proceeds of the sale to defray the cost of renovations to Our Lady of Good Counsel Church and rectory, the new home of the Center of Jesus the Lord, the charismatic Catholic group that had made the monastery its headquarters since the 1970s.
Torres said he is conducting his due diligence before coming up with a redevelopment proposal for the property, which the nuns acquired with a series of real estate transactions from 1878 to 1895. Torres hopes his plans will pass muster with neighborhood groups and city officials, and he realizes the importance of doing the right thing.
“Absolutely, 1,000 percent,” Torres said, when asked if he was aware of the historic and sacred nature of the property. “I’ve known about the property since I was a kid, and it was something I had always been intrigued with. It’s got amazing history. I realize how beautiful the grounds are and that special feeling of constant prayer. You can feel the spirit and the peace on those grounds.”
The archdiocese purchased the property from the Discalced Carmelites in 1975 for $500,000. The property had been too burdensome for the religious community to keep up, and the sisters eventually moved to smaller accommodations in Gentilly and then, eventually, to Covington.
An archdiocesan attorney, Otto B. Schoenfeld of Denechaud & Denechaud, recalls driving five of the sisters to their new home in Gentilly after the monastery was purchased in 1975.
“I took a circuitous route, and they seemed excited to see a couple of things,” Schoenfeld recalled. “Some of them had not been outside the convent since the 1920s.”
Abp. Hannan had plans
Schoenfeld said Archbishop Philip M. Hannan was interested in acquiring the property and converting it into an affordable residence for the elderly. But he dropped the idea a few months later when he decided to develop Chateau de Notre Dame.
The Carmelite nuns arrived in New Orleans on Nov. 21, 1877, and they moved into the property on Barracks Street in 1878. On Nov. 24, 1878, a ceremony of monastic enclosure was celebrated by Archbishop Napoleon Joseph Perche.
The Chapel of Reparation, which fronts North Rampart, was dedicated by Archbishop Janssens on Nov. 12, 1895.
Torres said after spending some time reflecting on the property and the current lack of assisted living for French Quarter residents, he is thinking of including an assisted living component as part of his plan, which also could include residential apartments or condominiums.
“I walked out of the gate and saw an old man who told me, ‘I can’t afford a house in the French Quarter any more, and my family wants me to come to the Northshore,’” Torres said. “He said it would be really nice if I would consider doing something for older people where they wouldn’t have to do a reverse mortgage.”
Torres said the chapel “will be incorporated into the plans. It’s in perfect condition. They just put a new roof on it. We are leaving the stained-glass windows in.”
The plan also will include opening certain sections of the wall for residential use and parking.
Attorney Todd Gennardo, who handled the transaction for the archdiocese, said it went far beyond a normal real estate sale.
“It’s such a historic property, that when you walk through it, you have to think about what happened there and how much history was made at that one location,” Gennardo said. “That’s not coming to an end, but it’s being put to a new use. History is going to continue in a different way.”