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New life for African-American girls' school in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS (Clarion Herald) - The fear that 169 years of the Sisters of the Holy Family educating African-American girls at St. Mary’s Academy would be ended by the wind and flooding left by Hurricane Katrina was cast aside with the announcement that classes would resume in August at a new site just three miles from its battered New Orleans East campus.

The legacy of the Holy Family sisters’ foundress, Mother Henriette Delille, transcended what was thought to be the destructive legacy of the Aug. 29 hurricane. The Office of Catholic Schools and the administration of St. Mary’s announced that St. Mary’s Academy will reopen in the classrooms of the former St. James Major (1955-1999) and St. Joseph Central (2000-2005) school, located at 3774 Gentilly Blvd., in August. The announcement was heralded by a flourish performed by two student trumpeters. The campus on Chef Menteur Highway, an eastern extension of Gentilly Boulevard, incurred $4.5 million of damage, according to the academy’s president, Sister Greta Jupiter. The Holy Family Sisters had all of their property insured for just $1 million. Sister Greta said she hopes, in time, to restore the facilities and resume classes at the site the school has occupied since 1965, but renovations will not begin in the immediate future. She announced that the academy will reopen both as an all-girls high school and a co-educational elementary school in St. James Major parish. “Since Katrina occurred, all of our institutions were destroyed, so we had to figure out how we were going to continue the mission and the legacy of our foundress in educating the youth, not just the young ladies, but the young boys,” Sister Greta said. “That’s why we came up with the model of going from our single-sex, all-girls high school to include a co-educational elementary (pre-kindergarten through eighth grade) school so we could minister to our families.” The buildings at what was most recently St. Joseph Central School received water in its first-floor classrooms, said St. James pastor Father John Finn, but they will have been completely restored by the time St. Mary’s Academy reopens. The neighborhood experienced 8 feet of water from the break in the London Avenue Canal following the hurricane. New Orleans Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes, Catholic Schools Superintendent Father William Maestri, and Holy Family Sisters Sylvia Thibodeaux, the congregational leader, and Greta Jupiter shared the celebration of St. Mary’s reopening. The 104 St. Mary’s students who were able to return from evacuation sites are currently sharing the uptown Xavier Prep campus with St. Augustine, whose campus was also heavily damaged, and Xavier’s girls. Sister Greta said any of her seniors, including those still living outside the city and state, would receive St. Mary’s Academy diplomas if they wish. Most of the Holy Family Sisters evacuated to Shreveport. Some were in Alexandria and Lafayette, while a few others, who remained during the storm to care for their pets, had to be rescued. Today 19 sisters are living in 15 FEMA trailers near their motherhouse on Chef Menteur Highway. They are anxious to revive their educational mission. The Office of Catholic Schools and the sisters searched for a viable location to temporarily relocate the school. They needed a space large enough to accommodate not only 600 high school girls but also additional elementary students. St. James Major closed its high school in 1990 and its elementary school nine years later. In 2000, the archdiocese opened St. Joseph Central Elementary School in those vacant classrooms. The school became another Katrina victim and did not reopen. Father Finn made the building available. “This occasion demonstrated how God never abandons us, but is also active in our lives,” said Sister Sylvia. “Post-Katrina St. Mary’s Academy promises to continue its mission of quality education in an even better way. We are currently working with some of the best minds from some of the best universities in the nation to enhance our curriculum. We hope to involve business and industry in preparing our students for active participation in the world of tomorrow.” St. Mary’s Academy originally opened on Chartres Street in 1867. From 1881-1963 the school was located at 717 Orleans St. Following 83 years in the French Quarter, St. Mary’s spent one year housed in the old St. Louis Cathedral School while its New Orleans East school and motherhouse were getting their finishing touches. The high school opened there in 1965. “One of the great anxieties and fears I had when we began to recover from Katrina was that the extraordinary presence of the Holy Family Sisters might be lost as we learned that each of the buildings that belonged to the institutions run by the sisters all were seriously flooded,” noted Archbishop Hughes. “I’m so delighted that Father Finn and the (St. James Major) parish council were so willing and welcoming of this possibility, it seems to me that we are celebrating today an extraordinary and auspicious event. “It would have been a disaster to lose St. Mary’s Academy, and so for us to be able to announce that this school will resume full operation next fall delights me tremendously,” he said. Father Maestri added, “St. Mary’s future is the future of the church, the future of our city and the future of the community. We’ve prayed for you,” he told the attending sisters. “And we’re so happy to see you back where you belong. “The Sisters of the Holy Family’s charism, their gifts and their presence have been integral to the life of the city. Katrina washed away so much, but it never washed away that spirit, and it never washed away that presence,” he said.


This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of the Clarion Herald (, official newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, La.



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