Students spend day journeying with Jesus at St. Joan of Arc, LaPlace

A 10-year-old school tradition allows students at St. Joan of Arc in LaPlace to experience the major events of Holy Week – from Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, all the way to the placement of his lifeless body in the tomb – within the confines of a single school day.

On March 23, the last day of classes before the Easter break, the entire student body gathered inside St. Joan of Arc Church twice – at the beginning and the end of the school day – to see Christ’s final days unfold in chronological order.
Fourth graders kicked off the morning church session, processing down the center aisle with palm fronds to help their schoolmates relive Palm Sunday.

After Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, costumed students fast-forwarded to the events of Holy Thursday. Seventh grader Hayden Hebert, portraying Jesus, joined his 12 apostles at a long, cloth-covered table set up in the sanctuary. Their moving tableau of the Last Supper included the sharing of bread and wine (grape juice).

After Jesus completed the traditional washing of the apostles’ feet, every congregant was invited to come to one of four stations to have their hands washed and dried by faculty members. This tradition enabled all to get a sense of the humble service Christ offered to his friends on Holy Thursday.

“We hope (the washing of hands and feet) is an example to you to serve one another,” said Daughter of Divine Providence Sister Pier Carla Barone, dismissing students to their classrooms at the conclusion of the Holy Thursday re-enactment. “What happened just now – the washing of the feet – will happen tomorrow night (on the real Holy Thursday) all over the world and at St. Joan of Arc Church!”

Before the students left church, Sister Pier Carla, who coordinates religious activities at the school, encouraged the young congregants to reflect on what happened next in the story: Jesus withdraws to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he is betrayed by Judas Iscariot and arrested.

The students reconvened in the church at 1:45 p.m. for the Good Friday portion of the Holy Week experience: a student-led Way of the Cross that moved up and down the aisles of the church. For the final station, students portraying Jesus’ friends placed the swaddled body of the crucified Christ on the floor of the church’s reconciliation room – an area out of the view of most congregants chosen to convey the idea of Christ being sealed in the tomb.

“On (the real) Good Friday, it would be nice to set your phone alarm for 3 p.m., so wherever you are you can remember that Jesus died at this time and you can say a little prayer,” Sister Pier Carla told the students.

The school day concluded with the veneration of the cross.

Sister Pier Carla feels that exposing young people to the entire Holy Week narrative in a single school day helps them recognize Christ’s experiences as a sequence of events and might encouragethem to attend all three Triduum services.

Since being assigned to Louisiana 30 years ago, Sister Pier Carla has attempted to give her American students the same kind of Holy Week experience that she grew up with in the small town of Pescolanciano, Italy, southeast of Rome.

“My father was always one of the apostles. They were all dressed in white,” Sister Pier Carla recalled. “Bread was given to the families of the 12 apostles, but we couldn’t eat it until Easter Sunday, which was hard for us when we were kids,” she said. The Good Fridays of the nun’s childhood featured three separate outdoor processions, each with a giant cross, that would converge at a spot locals called “Mount Calvary.”

At St. Mark School in Chalmette – the assignment Sister Pier Carla held before coming to St. Joan of Arc in 2005 – she instructed her students to take their Nativity and Way of the Cross re-enactments into the surrounding neighborhood – to literally take Christ out to the streets.

There is one Italian Catholic custom, however, that Sister Pier Carla can only tell her American students about.

“Between Holy Thursday night and the morning of Good Friday, we would have adoration in church,” Sister Pier Carla said. “We would keep vigil with Jesus all night long!”

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