First Catholic school in French Quarter set to open

By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Cleaning out the cafeteria refrigerator filled with pre-hurricane milk boxes was just one of the many hurdles the Dominican Sisters faced in getting Cathedral Academy School in the French Quarter of New Orleans set to reopen Oct. 17.

"We have to roll up our sleeves and get to work," said Dominican Sister Mary Rose Bingham, school principal.

"No one else is going to clean the refrigerator or sweep the playground," she said of the myriad tasks the sisters faced once they were able to get onto the school property just weeks before it was ready to open its doors.

The school is the first to reopen on the east side of Orleans Parish, a civil entity. Public schools in this section of the city have yet to announce reopening dates.

Just prior to Hurricane Katrina, the five Dominican sisters at Cathedral Academy fled to Houston. Once they were allowed back to their convent, which sustained minor roof damage, they got to work at the school just two blocks away, wiping down walls, moving desks, scrubbing the cafeteria and making hundreds of phone calls trying to locate students scattered across the country after the hurricane disrupted their lives Aug. 29.

But even though Sister Rose was putting in long days getting the school "convent clean," as she put it, she would not have it any other way.

She told Catholic News Service in an Oct. 7 telephone interview that the school had to open, if for no other reason than to give the students a sense of normalcy. "We want to provide routine and schedule to their lives," she said, noting that students need to "come back to something familiar."

"School is familiar; a shelter isn't," she said. The nun also noted that once children are back to their school routine, parents can have an opportunity to look for housing and jobs.

Although Cathedral Academy was not severely damaged, the school is taking in students from the extensively damaged St. Frances Cabrini School in New Orleans for the remainder of the school year. During the temporary arrangement, Peggy LeBlanc, principal of St. Frances Cabrini, will serve as vice principal of Cathedral Academy. Faculty members will be from both schools.

LeBlanc told the Clarion Herald, archdiocesan newspaper of New Orleans, that in the days just after the hurricane many parents were calling her to ask when their students could come back to school.

"I told them we would find a way to educate their children, even if I had to home school them, and I had several Cabrini teachers who were willing to do whatever it took," she said.

When she spoke to CNS, Sister Rose was not sure how many students the pre-kindergarten through eighth grade school would have on its first day because she and LeBlanc were still trying to reach their scattered students, most of whom lost everything in the hurricane and the flooding that followed it.

Faculty members, who have also been displaced, plan to rent apartments, stay with friends or commute from out of town. Sister Rose said she wants to "help the teachers to be strong to they can be strong for the children."

In the first week of October, the school received all the necessary health, fire and safety permits for reopening, and although the city's water had been declared safe and drinkable, the school had received a large donation of bottled water from the Salvation Army and the Red Cross for daily distribution to students.

The school has made a special effort to register previous students and children whose parents reside in temporary housing on the nearby cruise ships, but enrollment is open to any child in prekindergarten through eighth grade. It is not asking parents to pay tuition until Nov. 1, and school officials plan to meet with individual families to work out a solution if the tuition is a hardship.

Sister Rose is thrilled that she has received some donations for the school and was making time during her busy days before the school reopened to keep in touch with benefactors. When not cleaning and making phone calls, the sisters were also busy distributing food to the needy in the area.

Above all, Sister Rose is glad to be able to give her new and returning students a faith-based context where they can pray together and talk about their experiences. She said the school will also provide a safe place where the students will feel secure "when everything they know has been swept away."

She also thinks the school's reopening will benefit more than just the students, providing a "sense of hope for parents, students, the church and the city itself. It gives hope that there will be new life."

"We have to hold hope's hand a little tighter right now," she added. "It's easy to let go, but we have to hold on."

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Contributing to this story was Beth Donze in New Orleans.

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

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