Catholic schools across nation respond to Katrina

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Catholic schools across the nation have opened their doors to Gulf Coast students displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

In many places the schools have offered free tuition, recognizing the financial difficulties already facing the displaced families who are seeking to continue their children's education.

The students are "our top priority," said Dominican Sister Glenn Anne McPhee, secretary for education of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"Throughout the country there are efforts to bring stability to students' lives by providing them with educational opportunities so that their schooling will be as uninterrupted as possible," she said.

Ursuline Sister Carol Shively, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Shreveport, La., issued an urgent plea for volunteer teachers to help deal with the suddenly expanded student population. "We are in need of teachers who are willing to simply donate in the name of the Lord," she said.

In Jackson, Miss., where an influx of hurricane refugees doubled the population in four days, St. Joseph Sister Deborah Hughes, diocesan school superintendent, announced an open-door policy for all displaced students. "The financial aspect of all this cannot be a priority right now," she said. "I believe in my heart that people will come forward to help."

Hardest hit of all was the New Orleans Archdiocese. Most of its half-million Catholics lived in New Orleans itself, which suffered such severe flooding after levees were breached by the storm that a week later officials began to evacuate remaining residents by force because of the health dangers.

There were more than 11,000 students in Catholic colleges in the archdiocese, about 17,000 in Catholic high schools and nearly 33,000 in Catholic grade schools. In addition there were about 18,000 children in religious education programs.

Also severely damaged were the populous coastal cities of the Diocese of Biloxi, Miss. The diocese, which has nearly 70,000 Catholics, normally has about 3,700 students in its Catholic schools and an additional 5,600 in religious education programs.

Within a week after the hurricane at least 13 Catholic schools in the Diocese of Little Rock, Ark., had accepted nearly 100 displaced students and the diocese had instructed principals of all 35 schools to take in students at no cost if space was available.

Our Lady of the Holy Souls School in Little Rock signed up 16 children by Sept. 2. "I have a hard time saying no," said the principal, Illeana Dobbins. "Most of them have lost everything."

In an Internet forum set up by the National Catholic Educational Association to help match displaced students and teachers with schools, Catholic schools from as far away as Vermont and California posted notices that they would accept emergency admissions.

The NCEA also launched a national Child to Child campaign, asking every Catholic school or religious education student across the country to donate $1 to assist in the education of the displaced students. On its Web site, www.ncea.org, the association posted resource materials for the fundraising campaign and a variety of other hurricane-related aids, including a sample prayer service for victims and Internet assistance in placing displaced students, teachers and religious education directors.

NCEA president Karen Ristau noted that there are 2.6 million students in U.S. Catholic schools and another 4 million in religious education programs.

"Children always have had a great capacity for compassion and generosity -- whether collecting dimes to stamp out polio or pennies for famine victims in China," she said. "Now we're counting on our young people to reach out to thousands of children whose lives have been turned upside down by this disaster."

Schools in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston took in 500 displaced students in the first week and that number was expected to rise to 1,000.

Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta instructed Catholic schools to admit displaced students tuition-free as space permits. By Sept. 7 archdiocesan schools had enrolled about 100 of them.

Numerous bishops across the country issued similar instructions.

In Mobile, Ala., Jesuit-run Spring Hill College accepted 150 transient students for the fall semester, many of them from Xavier and Loyola universities in New Orleans. It kept its offices open on Labor Day to help the new arrivals register and sign up for classes.

At a mini-orientation Sept. 5, George Sims, associate vice president for academic affairs, told the new students, "Our plans have evolved each hour. We don't know your courses of major or where you are in your studies, but we will do our best to make you feel normal again."

A number of the new arrivals, hastily evacuated from their family homes or campus dormitories in New Orleans, had little more than the clothes on their back. Alumni and local businesses donated school supplies, clothing, toiletries and other essentials.

Other Catholic colleges and universities around the country also took in displaced college students from New Orleans. Jesuit-run Loyola University in Chicago admitted more than 500 students displaced from New Orleans and sent out an urgent plea to area alumni for help in housing the additional students.

Holy Cross College in Notre Dame, Ind., created a special eight-week, 12-credit course that won't begin until Oct. 24 in order to provide a fall semester to 20 freshmen from hurricane-affected schools.

Besides taking in many students whose fall semester plans had been so abruptly thrown into turmoil, Catholic schools at every level held prayer services for them and began a variety of fundraising programs to help not only the students but the hundreds of thousands of other hurricane and flood victims.

In the Washington Archdiocese, which includes parts of Maryland, two schools made Sept. 9 a "Tag Day," letting students donate money to come to school out of uniform. Another school held a bake sale and another sponsored a "Coins of Compassion" week, asking students to deposit donations in a container by a statue of Mary.

The University of Notre Dame took up collections for Katrina victims at all Masses and in all residence halls during the Labor Day weekend. It also announced that at its first home football game, against Michigan State Sept. 17, it will collect donations throughout the 80,000-seat stadium.

The Christian Brothers, who had three high schools in the New Orleans area devastated by the storm and flood, said students from those schools would be welcomed at some 50 other Christian Brothers schools across the country. "Spaces are available in the schools and host families have come forward," the order said.

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Contributing to this story were Malea Hargett in Little Rock, Erik Noriega in Houston and Gretchen Keiser in Atlanta.

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

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