Since 2005, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille faced adversity of biblical proportions. First, flooding from Hurricane Katrina significantly damaged the New Orleans convent and school of this Roman Catholic order. On the way to restoring it, a fire started by lightning, totally destroyed their longtime residence. Faced with a difficult decision — to rebuild, sell their 26-acre property to developers or use the land to stave off future disaster — they unselfishly chose the latter.
Guided by their order’s commitment to environmental stewardship, the nuns are turning their former home into one of the nation’s largest urban wetlands. They took this step shortly after a local landscape designer approached them with the idea.
“After Hurricane Katrina, we were keeping a vigil waiting for a vision on how we could best use the property to fulfill our mission and benefit the people of New Orleans. Then an architect came to us with his plan for the Mirabeau Water Garden, and we knew right away it was the vision we had been praying for,” says Sister Pat Bergen, a leader of the religious order. So instead of cashing in on the property, which could attract $10 million or more from developers, the nuns agreed to lease it to the city for $1 a year with the stipulation that it be used to combat the effects of climate change.
Mirabeau Water Garden will have the capacity to absorb 10 million gallons of water — either run-off from storms or floodwaters from the nearby Mississippi River. That’s great news for residents of the surrounding neighborhood, where flooding after major storms regularly inundates streets and homes. It also represents much-needed progress in New Orleans’ embrace of sustainable flood-control measures. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers admits that the $14.6-billion system of levees it built after Hurricane Katrina will fail to provide the city with adequate flood protection by 2023.
Mirabeau Water Garden will feature bioswales — channels that contain and filter stormwater — as well as a detention basin for holding larger amounts of water. Hydraulic engineers estimate it will completely eliminate the threat of flooding in a 10-year rain event and reduce flooding by 72 percent during a 100-year event. Those numbers helped the city secure federal funding for the entire $30-million project.
Along with grasses and wildflowers that thrive in wet conditions, plantings will include an oak grove and cypress forest. Paths, boardwalks and play areas will encourage residents to enjoy recreation and observe nature — another benefit envisioned by the nuns. As Sister Bergen says, “This project will help heal the earth, and heal the community.”