pelli clarke pelli: st.katharine drexel chapel, xavier university of louisiana pelli clarke pelli: st.katharine drexel chapel, xavier university of louisiana
apr 08, 2013

pelli clarke pelli: st.katharine drexel chapel, xavier university of louisiana

‘st. katharine drexel chapel at xavier university of louisiana’ by pelli clarke pelli architects, new orleans, louisianaall images courtesy of pelli clarke pelli architects / xavier university of louisiana




named for the canonized founder of the university, the st.katharine drexel chapel is an architecture that exceeds the specific programming required of a house of worship and expresses the essence of an institute as a whole. the pelli clarke pelli architects design is located on the site of mother katharine drexel’s original plan for the xavier university campus, founded as a coeducational school in 1915 to be the capstone of an educational system for black and american indian students. while the schools were open to people of all faiths, they were established despite strong opposition and long before the mid-century fight for racial equality. 

pelli clarke pelli architects st katharine chapel xavier university designboomview of the sloped processional walkway to the chapel entrance 





xavier university continues its goal in serving the african american catholic community, having the unique distinction of the only both historically black and catholic college in the nation. the geometric chapel stands at the former location of the student center, lost in the wake of hurricane katrina. the spiritual heart of the campus is now characterized by a 20 meter tall volume that seats 430 worshippers. the whole structure is raised 1.2 meters above grade and prioritizes approach, using a 300 meter sloping processional plane to a divided narthex.

bright portuguese limestone contrast with the roof’s copper cladding 




the building expresses the austerity of the enterprising nun in its material palette. a portuguese limestone base is topped by a copper roof in keeping with the architectonics of the existing campus. the copper sheathing is expected to take on a rich green patina that changes over time and makes the weathered exterior continually dynamic. walls, built with the same masonry technique of the tomb of st.katharine, grow in height as they wrap around the altar, giving the space a sense of lift. in plan, the pared down octagonal form references ancient eight-sided churches and helps create a non-hierarchical sacred space. 

limestone is grouted with the same pattern as st.katharine’s tomb, while copper cladding is expected to take on a rich patina 




the front and back walls  of the roof are parallelograms while three side planes crease and divide the quadrilaterals into triangles. in addition to referencing the holy trinity, the effect is that of a rising roof and serves the dual function of allowing skylight to bathe interiors with light. a chancel screen continues the conceptual trope of divine light to the chapel’s interiors; a variously perforated metal screen creates a diaphanous inner skin while low ceiling ambulatories contrast with the buoyant-looking faceted dome. cuban artist jose bedia designed the stained-glass program of the stations of the cross, using single line drawings, abstracted bodies and an intense, complimentary palette of blue and yellow to illustrate the catholic narrative in 14 full-sized windows.

pelli clarke pelli architects st katharine chapel xavier university designboomthe octagonally planned structure is expressed with a angled roof form that admits ample natural light 




a small octagonal side chapel is modeled after the pelli clarke pelli design for the catholic center at yale university. located beneath the bell tower, a pattern of colorful square windows that delivers indirect light into the more intimate meditation space. the axially aligned sacred spaces have a distinct sculptural presence on campus, but pay tribute to the ascetic sensibility and restraint of st. katharine’s philosophy to create a spiritual respite on the landscape.

interior views of the non-hierarchical altar space below the dome’s aperture 

pelli clarke pelli architects st katharine chapel xavier university designbooma perforated chancel screen diffuses natural light in the altar space  

a 12 foot tall christ sculpture completes the main worship space 

rings of skylights are partially concealed by a aluminum screen 

pelli clarke pelli architects st katharine chapel xavier university designbooma view of the ancillary meditation chapel  

stained glass programming was part of the spiritual and architectural effort 

cuban artist jose bedia designed 14 windows depicting the stations of the cross

construction views of the above-grade foundation level and premilinary structure

pelli clarke pelli architects st katharine chapel xavier university designboomconstruction view of the early volumes

construction views of the angled roof 

construction view of inner cladding 

construction view of the early copper exterior cladding 

floor plan level 0

(left): long section, (right): short section 

pelli clarke pelli architects st katharine chapel xavier university designboomwater color of the proposed space 

watercolor view of the approach 




project info:


location: new orleans, louisiana, usalocal architect: waggoner and ball architectsarea: 1000 square metersyear of completion: 2012



designboom has received this project from our DIY submissions  feature, where we welcome our readers to submit their own work for publication. see more project submissions from our readers here.

  • Another ugly, expensive, POS from people who seldom or never attend Mass themselves. The designers and their explainers’ high-sounding platitudes only betray their self-righteous buffoonery. Where are the new churches to convert a contemporary St. Katherine Drexel? Even the levitating “Jesus” looks like a magician’s act. Where is the Gospel of Christ’s suffering, death, burial and resurrection? These non-descript, non-denominational, “meditation spaces” are a waste of God’s gift of oxygen. May He please help the Catholic Church soon!

    Jerome Rochon says:

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