Back to School in New Orleans: Catholic School Is First to Open

NEW ORLEANS — In post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, almost 100 inner-city pupils got to attend classes for the first time this school year Oct. 17.

St. Louis Cathedral Academy, a small grade school located in the French Quarter, was the first school in New Orleans to reopen and bring children and families back to the city center. Cathedral, like many schools in the area, is “twinning” — welcoming students and staff from other diocesan schools that were devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

One of its new students is Diamond Newton, 10, a fifth grader who recently returned from Houston, where she was evacuated with her family. She and her little brother, Dynae, 5, used to go to St. Frances Xavier Cabrini across town, but that school sat under 10 feet of water for three weeks and likely will have to be bulldozed.

Their father said his children were happy to be back at school and regain a sense of normalcy.

“It will be a transition going to a new school, but they've already seen a lot of their classmates from Cabrini,” Kevin Newton said. “They'll need a lot of one-on-one attention at school to get over what they went through, and learn how to move on.”

Newton, a police officer who stayed in New Orleans after the hurricane hit, said talking to his children has given him some insight into how they're coping.

“I think my kids are adjusting pretty well,” he said.

Helping the children make transitions at Cathedral are five Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, based in Nashville, Tenn., and 10 lay teachers, who welcomed the preschoolers through eighth graders, and got them back into the rhythm of the classroom.

“The children are smiling and saying they're even excited to have homework,” said Dominican Sister Mary Rose Bingham, principal of Cathedral. “What has surprised me the most is the parents’ gratitude for us opening and getting their kids back in school. They're saying now their kids and families have a reason to move back.”

Within the first week, the number of students jumped to more than 160; enrollment was expected to reach 220 students by the end of October. Last year, the school served 125 children.

Sister Bingham, who with the nuns evacuated to Houston before the Aug. 29 storm, attributed the school's reopening to God's work.

“When we came back from Houston and saw the grounds and four destroyed classrooms, I said, ‘God, if you want this school to make it, you have to help us; I give the school over to you because I can't do it alone.’ He is not outdone in generosity,” she told the Register.

Over the next few weeks, Sister Bingham said, many people and organizations stepped in “at the right place and the right time.”

The young people from Youth for the Third Millennium and a Regnum Christi Boys Club from St. Louis were two such organizations. Youth for the Third Millennium is an evangelization initiative of young “missionaries” who go into parishes or door to door to spread the faith, and Regnum Christi is the apostolate movement of the Legionaries of Christ.

“The guys were at a parish helping elderly people clean up and repair their houses when the pastor introduced them to the Dominican Sisters,” said Kenneth Davison, executive director of Catholic World Mission, a Legionary apostolate that provides disaster relief in Central and South America.

It launched Mission Hope with Youth for the Third Millennium to reach out to Katrina victims in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, helping Catholic schools absorb additional students and supporting displaced priests in New Orleans and other communities affected by Katrina.

With classrooms out of commission, the young people spent all night framing walls in the auditorium. A member of the National Guard directed them to a local Lowe's home improvement store where they could buy sheet rock, but the store was closed. They found an employee to open it up, and Lowe's decided to donate the materials. A truck driver happened to be there and offered to transport the material to the school.

Resuming Ministry

The school's new vice principal is Peggy LeBlanc, who was principal of the closed Cabrini School.

“God orchestrates everything,” she said. “The only thing we can hold on to is that in the end there will be some real good coming out of the schools melding together.”

Of LeBlanc's 383 students at Cabrini, 95% lost their homes in the storm. She said Catholic schools have a special way to minister to their traumatized students at this time.

“At Catholic schools, you can talk about God, goodness and God's love, and how it will all come out in the long run for the better,” LeBlanc said. “We can teach love and demonstrate love and provide kids with a place to talk.”

In her first-grade classroom, teacher Consuella Williams tried to help her students process what they've been through over the last few months.

“We talk about Katrina and they can draw what happened to them,” she said. “When I ask them to explain their pictures, they express what they experienced: how their house was under water and how they lost their bikes and their dolls and toys.”

Williams said she has seen the children improving over the last few days.

“At first, they were crying when they had to leave their parents because they were afraid of being separated from them,” she said. “But when they feel the warm spirit and open arms here, they feel better. I talk to them when they cry, and that comfort zone helps them open up.”

As superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Father William Maestri has been busy overseeing the reopening of 51 Catholic schools serving nearly 30,000 students; 48,725 students attended 107 schools in the archdiocese last year.

“Having the first school back on the east bank is once again another sign of the Church's presence for the good of the community, and the importance of Catholic education that is essential to the history of the region,” he told the Register.

Sister Bingham also sees the reopening of Cathedral and its ministry to the city's children as a source of pride.

“If Catholic schools didn't open and the role we play in the preaching of the Gospel were taken away, we would be such a poor city,” she said. “The Catholic schools leading the way and meeting the needs of the people is remarkable and is a reason to be proud of Catholic schools in America.”

Annamarie Adkins is based in St. Paul, Minnesota.