‘Cajun Catholic’ Expansion: University of Louisiana in Lafayette Preps for New Church and Student Center

‘Hopefully, it will mean more vocations, evangelization and transformation of minds and hearts...’

L TO R: McCrery Architects, PLLC 2022 rendering of the new Our Lady of Wisdom church-center complex; sign announcing the future plans in Lafayette, Louisiana.
L TO R: McCrery Architects, PLLC 2022 rendering of the new Our Lady of Wisdom church-center complex; sign announcing the future plans in Lafayette, Louisiana. (photo: McCrery Architects, PLLC rendering, 2022; Richard Meek)

Nestled at the intersection of the past and its future, the Catholic community at the University of Louisiana (UL) in Lafayette is on the cusp of ushering in a new era of evangelization while preserving and restoring traditional Catholic roots.

If an ambitious fundraising deadline is met, as expected, groundbreaking for Our Lady of Wisdom Church and Catholic Student Center could happen as early as September, symbolically christening the next generation to carry on the faith that forms the spiritual foundation of an entire area and culture. 

Embedded deep in the heart of “Cajun Country” in southwest Louisiana, where Catholicism is as important as the spices used in a gumbo, an estimated 10,000 of the university’s 17,000 students identify as Catholic.

“You cannot be Cajun and not be Catholic,” said Lafayette native and Our Lady of Wisdom pastor Father Pat Broussard, who attended the church and previously served as an associate pastor of the church he now shepherds.

Our Lady of Wisdom - UL
Current Our Lady of Wisdom complex offers students opportunities for faith and fellowship.(Photo: Richard Meek)

“The faith is deeply rooted in them,” he said, calling UL a “public university with a Catholic feel.”

Our Lady of Wisdom Church and Catholic Student Center - UL
Our Lady of Wisdom Church (Photo: Richard Meek)

A new church and 25,000-square-foot student center, which will feature a coffee shop and expanded rooms for Bible study groups, has been in the planning stages for more than 10 years, when former pastor Father Bryce Sibley was forced to bail water from the center during his first months at the parish. 

“It was a torrential downpour, and I had go bail it out and unclog the drains,” Father Sibley recalled to the Register. 

Not long after that incident, someone suggested enlarging the kitchen in the center’s café to be able to serve more food

“I’m thinking, ‘We don’t need to redo the kitchen; we need a new place,’” he said, also remembering how it was discovered at that time the center was basically sitting on a massive sinkhole as a result of a pipe busting under the building many years earlier.

Also fueling the demand for expansion was a burgeoning contingent of young adults visiting the student center and trickling over into the church. 

The increase attendance was rooted in Our Lady of Wisdom beginning to offer Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) ministry.

“As the ministry grew, it was just not a big enough space for the amount of students coming through there,” Father Sibley said. “I began to envision a new center, but [the initial impetus] was really the renovation of the kitchen.” 

Father Sibley, who served at Our Lady of Wisdom from 2010 to 2021 and is associate academic dean at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, began pursuing the idea with the Diocese of Layette in 2013. One year later, approval was granted; but there was an immediate problem: finding a suitable site. 

Our Lady of Wisdom Advancement Director Mary Hernandez conceded the existing church and center could have potentially been torn down and new buildings constructed, which would have left the university’s Catholic community with no home for possibly up to three years. 

Perhaps the most compelling factor is the fact UL currently leases the land to the diocese. There was a concern of the potential consequences if the university had ever decided not to renew the lease. 

Discussions soon began involving a possible land swap involving the university and the diocese.  Although the project encountered myriad delays, including the COVID-19 pandemic, eight years later, the deal was finalized, perhaps not coincidentally, on June 8, 2022, the feast day of Our Lady Wisdom.

The swap involved 5.5 diocesan-owned acres UL desired where Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Regional Medical Center was formerly located. In exchange, the diocese received 1.4 acres from the university that sit directly across the street from the current Our Lady of Wisdom campus. 

“Did Our Lady play some part in it? I think she may have played a role in it,” Father Broussard said with a smile, answering his own question.

“It was a big ask for [university officials] to sell the Roman Catholic Church land,” Hernandez said. 

She said fundraising for the $35-million project began in 2015, when site plans were still a dream and a location was several years from being finalized. But even with the challenge of uncertainty, the community responded. 

Hernandez said “people felt so passionately about it they wanted to support it.”

She said $9 million had been pledged by 2022, when plans were unveiled, with another $17 million since.

“It’s been tremendous, just being able to show people the plans,” she said. “People are saying it’s amazing.”

Father Broussard has also received positive feedback, with some predicting it will be the most beautiful church in the diocese, which he concedes is a bit ambitious. 

“Just to be a part of it is a little surreal,” he admitted. 

The church will be intentionally traditional in design, satisfying the desires of the students, Father Broussard. He views the church’s design as a teaching tool, an opportunity to “wow people and get them interested in what is going on.”

Rendering of the west elevation of the new church - UL
Rendering of the west elevation of the new church(Photo: McCrery Architects, PLLC)

Father Broussard noted the church is a particular style for a “heavy Cajun area.”

He said the architects studied churches in France, where the Cajuns were originally from before migrating to Nova Scotia, where they were allowed to practice their Catholic faith. They were later exiled from Nova Scotia by the British monarchy for similar faith reasons.

Many of the Cajuns landed in southwest Louisiana, where they found rich soil for farming. 

“One of things is to try to explain to people whenever we talk about this is that the building is designed in such a way so that it functions well for what we do and reminds us of why we do it,” Father Broussard said. 

The altar will be at the center of the church, and the tabernacle will have a prominent place behind the altar. 

The church will have a traditional communion rail, which was approved by the diocesan Office of Worship. In fact, the diocese recently closed St. John’s Cathedral in Lafayette for renovations, which will include reinstalling a communion rail.

Father Broussard said many students already kneel to receive the Eucharist. 

But he stressed education must be a key component of the new church: “You have to educate people and tell them what it is, why do we have it and what is the point of using it.”

Similar to the current church, the new house of worship will have a bell tower visible from any vantage point on campus, with bells heard from a distance. He emphasized the tower will also provide a link from the church to the student center, a transition that already exists in the current center. 

Hernandez is hopeful the return to the traditional architecture will allow for those attending Mass to gain an understanding of the liturgy and the pride of place of the Blessed Sacrament.

“Our focus should be on Jesus and the tabernacle and the Eucharist,” she said. “Part of the Eucharistic Revival is trying to get everyone to focus on … the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.”

Sophomore Marcie Romero has been involved at Our Lady of Wisdom and is excited about the plans for both buildings. She said the center will allow her a place to be with her friends and believes the church will turn attention back to the Eucharist.

“It may help new people coming and finding their faith,” she said. “The foundation, that need, to focus on Christ.”

Regarding the new student center, Hernandez said the design will allow for students to study, share time with friends, or simply take a few minutes to reset between classes. 

 “We do want them to come here and feel comfortable enough to be formed in the faith and to able to go out and bring others back in the faith,” she said.

The student center will sport the welcoming design of a traditional Acadian house, with front porches designed to draw people in. 

Hernandez said the first floor is geared toward social activities, but the second floor is smaller, more serene and includes places for Bible study. She said, since the pandemic, smaller prayer groups have surfaced. 

Father Broussard said currently there are 32 Bible study groups that can total a combined 400 people, although the average number is 250 to 280, explaining: “In the new place, three to four rooms will be dedicated solely to that and at least four other rooms will be available to help those who want to learn about their faith.”

A large hall on the second floor will seat 300 people at tables or 499 standing. Father Broussard said that, at least once a semester, Our Lady of Wisdom brings in a nationally recognized speaker to give an academic lecture.

The hall will also be available for wedding receptions, which he said would generate the money to help support operating costs. 

“Have that big celebration and showcase what we have done with the building and the faith,” Father Broussard said. 

Student Matthew Miller, who is a Lafayette native and scheduled to graduate in 2025, was effusive in his praise but also offered a sad caveat. “It’s a shame I will not be able to experience it, but I think it will be great to bring everybody together. Coming here is great, but I think there could be more, so I’m looking forward to an upscaling of everything.”

Although the task of securing another $17 million in pledges to guarantee a September groundbreaking might appear elusive, Hernandez believes “the hard work is done.”

‘We are really excited where we are,” she said. “The Lord wants this to happen.”

Added Father Sibley, “Hopefully, it will mean more vocations, evangelization and transformation of minds and hearts.”