NEW ORLEANS — When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005, one of the victims was St. Augustine High School. Today, the landmark school has returned as a beacon of Catholic education in Louisiana.

“We’re slowly getting back to normalcy here. Beginning in ‘07-’08, we’re seeing ourselves not functioning in a Katrina mode now,” said Josephite Father John Raphael, the principal. “Katrina cannot be a crutch for us. We wanted to come back a stronger school with a greater sense of purpose and function — addressing character issues, academic scores, the ordinary tasks we always set for ourselves. We’re really getting back to the mission of the school in providing that unique St. Augustine experience for the young men.”

The experience Father Raphael speaks of began in 1951 when the Josephite Fathers and Brothers founded St. Augustine’s as New Orleans’ first secondary school for young black men. At the time, they couldn’t go anywhere else but to Xavier University Preparatory, then coed.

Quickly, St. Augustine’s became a beacon of “firsts” from academics to athletics. It led the battle for integration in the city both in sports and with its “Marching 100,” the first black high school band to play in the Mardi Gras parade. It has many National Merit scholars and six Presidential scholars. An average 90% of graduates go on to college.

Completely devastating the school and neighborhood, Katrina challenged all that.

“We had debris, mold, mildew, damaged property inside and out to the extent of $4.5 million,” said Josephite Father Joseph Doyle, the school’s president.

The first and second floors had to be redone. The new Business & Technology Center, dedicated in 2005 with state-of-the-art technology, and the new chapel in that addition were “all wiped out,” he said. The library was relatively untouched.

Finances to rebuild proved a major problem.

The school couldn’t count on receiving money pledged for the addition because “donors had others obligations now,” Father Doyle said. “That was a setback for us.”

In time, the school received some funding from FEMA, a large loan from the Society of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart (the Josephites), a settlement from the insurance company, a donation from the Archdiocese of New Orleans and private donations from around the country.

Said Father Doyle, “Among the private donations, I received over $75,000 from the Knights of Columbus in New Jersey who adopted us as a project.”

Maxing Out

At the same time, the student population had to be rebuilt. When Katrina hit, there were 987 students on two campuses — the second being St. Augustine’s Junior High School five blocks away. That campus was a total loss.

Father Doyle said many families had to relocate, since 70% of students came from New Orleans East, an area still devastated but slowly coming back.

That included alumni active with the school.

Some families stayed in the area, leaving 237 boys to attend the Max school, an interim school composed of students still in New Orleans from St. Augustine’s and the two all-girl, black, Catholic secondary schools — St. Mary’s Academy and Xavier University Preparatory. Max started classes in January 2006.

“We counted on those young men, not including the seniors at the time, as a core group,” said Father Raphael, outlining the next step to recovery. “We began a series of satellite meetings in Baton Rouge, Houston and Atlanta, where a good number of school families had relocated and were still seriously thinking about returning home to let them know our intentions were to reopen St. Augustine.”

“The board of directors said we could make a go of it with minimum of 500 students,” he added.

Athletic director and head basketball coach Clifford Barthe, a 1976 graduate, worked not only the front end of the cleanup and rebuilding by overseeing the construction projects, he also helped Father Raphael recruit kids in those cities to come back to New Orleans. At times he was a bit skeptical about reaching that 500 number.

“But Father John [Raphael] always said, keep praying that the Good Lord will take care of us,” Barthe said. “He was right.”

By August, 695 students were ready to start in September 2006 at St. Augustine’s even though rebuilding wasn’t completed.

‘Borders on Miraculous’

So strong is the commitment to St Augustine’s that even during the exodus some seniors, including two who had to live by themselves in FEMA trailers, came to make sure they graduated from this school.

Freshman vice president and honor student Christian Davis said his godfather was a merit scholar here. When Davis and his mother returned to their apartment from Raleigh, N.C., he decided to go to St. Augustine and “couldn’t wait for our campus to reopen,” he said. “It was deeply moving.”

He said the school and its faculty have become father figures to him — “the only one I have today.”

“A majority of the faculty are black males,” Davis said. “In today’s society, that’s very important because we see the black male teachers every day here properly dressed and in a business-like manner. They show us what we should look up to and not what we see on TV. It’s a great hope for us.”

Father Raphael, a 1985 graduate, finds things slowly getting back to normal after dealing with the lingering effects of Katrina.

“The students were bruised a bit by the whole experience,” he said, “but they showed a lot of resilience and adaptability to get back in their regular life here.” That including struggling to rebuild the athletic teams and the band.”

“God has been very good to us,” he added. “We still have issues. We still have financial concerns. But the fact we have been able to regain the level of administrative and academic function borders on the miraculous.”

Father Raphael described St Augustine and the two sister schools as a sign of hope and a great blessing to the community.

The opening day in September 2006 captured that image perfectly for everyone. As all the boys walked from the main school campus to a church five blocks away for opening Mass, they had to cross one of the major thoroughfares. There, emotions soared. People honked horns, women cried, and everyone was shouting, “Welcome back, Purple Knights!”

“I grew up around the corner from St. Augustine,” Barthe reflected. “St. Augustine’s was a big part of this community. The reopening brought life back into this area of the city.”

Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.