Catholic schools in Biloxi, Miss., Diocese begin to regroup

By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service

BILOXI, Miss. (CNS) -- When Mike Ladner began his role as Biloxi Catholic school superintendent this May, he told his bishop that he "liked a challenge."

But little did he know just how much of a challenge he would face.

The school year, which began during the period Aug. 4-12, started without a hitch. And then Hurricane Katrina swept through the region Aug. 29, destroying four diocesan schools and causing major to severe damage to seven of them. All 19 diocesan schools closed after the storm and now some of them are slowly in the process of reopening.

When Ladner spoke with Catholic News Service in his office Sept. 9, he was happy to report that he had just attended the reopening of St. James School in Gulfport that morning. Another school, Immaculate Conception in Laurel, reopened the previous week.

"As soon as they are ready, they reopen," he said, noting that the schools have to be cleaned of debris and mud, dried out and equipped for water, sewage and electricity, and finally must pass inspection by city officials.

Students from schools that are not immediately repairable will most likely be bused to other Catholic schools, Ladner said, but he also said the schools currently lacked the funding needed to do that. Hundreds of people willing to either send supplies or volunteer have recently contacted him, but what he really needed was a group to sponsor a school bus for a year for some of the displaced students.

Another big issue is teacher salaries. Sacred Heart Elementary School in D'Iberville, just outside Biloxi, was submerged under 10 feet of water during the storm and will not be ready to open until at least January, but as he pointed out, "Teachers still need to get paid."

Father Bob Higginbotham, pastor of Sacred Heart, told CNS Sept. 9 that he did not know how many of the students were even still in the area. "So many people are relocating," he said, adding that if the number of returning students is low they might have to go to another Catholic school in the area.

He said he has met with his teachers and they were trying to get in touch with the students in their classes. For now, his parishioners are scattered and the church is damaged. He has been celebrating Sunday Masses at the diocesan pastoral center and a local Methodist church.

"So many of our parishioners had to swim out of their homes," he said, adding that he evacuated just before the storm and before 10 feet of water filled his rectory.

Recovering will be tough, he said, noting that many of his parishioners are older. "I don't know what's going to happen."

Another person, among many, with no idea about the future is Dean Sangy, a Diamondhead resident who came to Gulfport just before the hurricane to help an older family member. Sangy spent the night of the hurricane huddled in a hotel bathroom with his wife, father-in-law and two dogs before being rescued by police officers.

His home in Diamondhead was totally flooded as was the high school in New Orleans where he taught English for 20 years: Brother Martin High School run by the brothers of the Sacred Heart. For now, Sangy plans to clear out his home and move to Gulfport to be with extended family. He said he will not be able to make the long commute to the relocated Brother Martin school now in Baton Rouge and operating at "twilight hours" from 3-9 p.m. during the availability of a school building. Sangy is looking for a teaching position in the Biloxi Diocese.

"I didn't think I was going to make it," he said of his night in the hurricane when every time he opened the hotel door a piece of sheet metal whipped by. After being rescued, the family spent a few days living in the hotel lobby.

Now without a home or job, 58-year-old Sangy, who had been a parishioner at Our Lady of the Gulf in Bay St. Louis, somehow maintains a positive attitude, telling CNS Sept. 9 he is "sure things will work out."

"I look at this as a test of our faith," he said. "It helps you re-prioritize what's important to you. In a way this has strengthened my faith rather than weakened it."

He also hopes to never retire, saying: "As long as I can, I hope to stand and teach."

Copyright (c) 2005 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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