Carrying the torch for 150 years
“It was quite a journey,” Holy Family Sister Clare of Assisi Pierre, president of St. Mary’s Academy, said about the resurrection of St. Mary’s after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “It was only faith. I never could have imagined this (rebuilding the school). I just know I felt and Sister Jennie Jones (principal) felt a sense of obligation (to students) to return.”
It was only natural that the sisters rebuilt, considering the legacy of the African-American order of nuns founded in 1842 by Venerable Henriette Delille and her friends Juliette Gaudin and Josephine Charles. From the beginning, their mission has been “caring for the sick, helping the poor and instructing the ignorant of their people, free and enslaved, children and adults.”
Reflecting on the 150th anniversary of the school this year, racial segregation and lack of funds have never daunted the Sisters of the Holy Family since opening their first school on Chartres Street in 1867 because they truly believe “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me.”
That expression became a mantra of Sister Clare of Assisi as the order and the school recovered from Hurricane Katrina’s devastation. The core existence of the Holy Family sisters has been service to others, she said.
“Historically, the Sisters of the Holy Family have always been involved in the crucial and urgent needs of the people and the time,” Sister Clare of Assisi said. “(Rebuilding) brings us full circle to the time when black women were not educated; to the Mississippi River, with the slaves at the port; to a young woman, Henriette Delille, who was influenced by women who were divinely chosen, women who came here to help the dispossessed and underprivileged. In some ways, we still have the dispossessed and underprivileged. I think it is why St. Mary’s has survived 150 years.”
Aftermath of Katrina
Sister Clare of Assisi was assistant principal and campus minister when Katrina hit in August 2005. She was elected vicar general after Katrina and worked tirelessly with Sister Jennie to get St. Mary’s Academy up and running.
With the permission of then-superior Sister Sylvia Thibodeaux, the duo reopened the high school by aligning with Xavier Prep and St. Augustine High School in a combined school called the MAX on Xavier Prep’s campus for a semester.
But, everyone was anxious to get back to their own schools,” Sister Clare of Assisi said.
In August 2006, a second move was made to the former St. James Major Elementary, by permission of then-Archbishop Alfred Hughes.
Sister Clare of Assisi said volunteers nationwide, as well as Orleans Parish prisoners, helped St. Mary’s wash down the walls, paint and do whatever else was necessary to ready the St. James campus for opening. Some books and furniture were even salvaged from the second floor of the flooded St. Mary’s Academy. Approximately 500 students were educated at St. James Major the first year.
“We squeezed them in and educated them, but we knew we couldn’t stay there because of space, and the buildings were too old,” Sister Clare of Assisi said.
Growing to 600 students, the sisters had to find a way to take the next step.
Sister Clare of Assisi, a 1956 St. Mary’s Academy graduate, and Sister Jennie, a 1970 graduate, worked with FEMA to get trailers to reopen their alma mater on the Chef Menteur campus.
“When we came back, we put up a sign that read, ‘St. Mary’s is coming home.’ I think that brought hope to families,” Sister Jennie said. “Where there is a school, there are families, and pretty soon they started coming back.”
In addition to being educators, the rebuilding journey taught them to become businesswomen and negotiators.
“Then we had to dream,” Sister Clare of Assisi said. “Other staff members could help us do that dreaming and figure out what it entailed.”
Eventually, St. Mary’s Academy received grants from FEMA that allowed a new school to be built using 2005 codes. Not having built a new school since 1965, Sister Clare said they had no idea how much it would cost. The original estimate was $33 million, which included four feet of dirt fill that had to settle for a time before construction began, all the buildings and furnishings. The actual cost of rebuilding was more than $35 million.
When school reopened in 2011, the Sisters of the Holy Family made it easier for families to return by accepting children of all ages, not just high school.
“We had to find a way to generate sufficient funds to take care of ourselves and the school, so we said we would take the whole family,” Sister Clare said. “That meant we were taking little boys and girls on the high school campus,” only in separate buildings from the high school.
With the new school successfully functioning for six years with a total enrollment of approximately 656 students from pre-K3 through 12th grade in trailers and the new high school building, the Sisters of the Holy Family are dreaming again. They seek to add another wing onto the new high school to replace the trailers to accommodate the children in pre-K3 through fourth grade, Sister Jennie said.
Sister Clare of Assisi said FEMA has small grants available for that purpose, but they are not sufficient to pay for the entire rebuilding.
“It’s on the horizon,” she said. “We have hired an architect. It will be a miracle.”
But, it won’t be the first time their prayers have been answered since Katrina.
“I can say I believed in God before Katrina, but I know from personal experience I never could have dreamed of or imagined what has happened since,” Sister Clare of Assisi said.
“The journey has become the dream because we are not finished until we make the entire school whole,” Sister Jennie said. “That means bringing our elementary and male academy into one building.
“With that, the journey of faith continues. Henriette Delille is alive and well at St. Mary’s Academy.”
of St. Mary’s Academy
► December 1867: St. Mary’s School opened on Chartres under the leadership of Mother Josephine Charles.
► 1881: School moved to the Quadroon Ballroom at 717 Orleans Avenue in 1881 and became St. Mary’s Academy, the first Catholic secondary school for colored girls in New Orleans. Boarders were accepted.
► 1906:Sister of the Holy Family Mother Austin bought 123 acres in Gentilly on Chef Menteur Highway at $10 an acre. People made fun of the purchase because it was swamp and farmland, but it resembled the wide open space the sisters were used to, since many came from the country.
► Early 1900s:Built Tommy Lafon Orphanage for Boys; across from Dillard University, they had an orphanage for girls.
► 1947: Received Southern Association of Schools and Colleges (SACS) accreditation and has maintained it ever since.
► September 1965:Students moved into their new school at 6905 Chef Menteur Hwy. in New Orleans alongside the Sisters of the Holy Family Motherhouse. The sisters ran a hatchery raising chickens and selling eggs as a source of income and food for the nuns and boarders.
►January 2006: St. Mary’s first reopened with Xavier Preparatory School and St. Augustine High to form the MAX School at Xavier Prep from January to May 2006.
► August 2006: St. Mary’s moved to the former St. James Major School on Gentilly Boulevard and expanded its student body to include pre-K3 to fifth grade as well as high school to accommodate families displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
► 2011: New school buildings for students open on original campus offering pre-K3 through 12th grades.
►MARCH 11, 2017, 1 p.m.: Anniversary Mass at the Sisters of the Holy Family Motherhouse Chapel
► Nov. 2, 2017: Day of Service for students
►Dec. 2, 2017, 7 p.m.: 150th anniversary gala, exhibition and poster unveiling at Messina’s at the Terminal (Lakefront Airport.)