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St. Mary’s Academy celebrates 150 years

14th August 2017   ·   0 Comments

By Fritz Esker
Contributing Writer

In a city that cherishes its history, St. Mary’s Academy in New Orleans East continues to cement its place in the Crescent City by celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.

A Bold Beginning

The story of St. Mary’s Academy starts with Henriette Delille, a Catholic Creole woman who started the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans. When she founded St. Mary’s in 1857, it was still illegal to educate Black and enslaved New Orleanians. But she persevered and her school is alive and well 150 years later.

Members of the Sophomore Class of St. Mary's Academy in 1937.

Members of the Sophomore Class of St. Mary’s Academy in 1937.

Delille has been given the “venerable” designation by the Catholic Church, meaning she lived a life that was “heroic in virtue” and that sainthood is a future possibility. In St. Louis Cathedral, she is in the records hundreds of times as a “God Parent” during the baptisms of babies of former slaves.

Relocations and Rebirth

While St. Mary’s Academy has been a stalwart New Orleans institution, it has moved around the city during its 150 years. It opened on Chartres Street in 1867, then moved to Orleans Street in 1881. It moved to New Orleans East in 1965. But about 40 years later, disaster struck in the form of Hurricane Katrina, which decimated the campus. If the school was going to survive, adjustments would have to be made.

“Due to the scarcity of the population post-Katrina, one year after the flood, and a need to provide more convenience to our families, we expanded our curriculum to include a co-educational pre-K3-8 (pre-K from three years old through 8th grade) programs while continuing our traditional all-female 9-12 school,” said Sr. Clare of Assisi Pierre, SSF and president of St. Mary’s (also an alumna).

A more recent setting of St. Mary's tens of hundreds of graduating seniors who have passed through the halls of the Academy.

A more recent setting of St. Mary’s tens of hundreds of graduating seniors who have passed through the halls of the Academy.

Surviving Katrina was not easy, but Sr. Clare said St. Mary’s had a lot of help. “St. Mary’s Academy has thrived through the efforts of loyal and committed families, alumnae, family, staff and friends from around the country who understand the importance of our school’s mission and legacy. We continue to always look forward with faith in God that all things are possible.”

After a few years out of New Orleans East, the school returned to its $36 million campus on Chef Menteur Highway in 2011 with 31 classrooms, SMART boards, touch-screen computers and state-of-the-art science labs. There’s also a beautiful open square around a fountain, an art room, bookstore, student union and a band area with soundproofed practice rooms.

“I am most proud of the construction of a completely new facility from its inception to completion,” Sr. Clare said. “Many said it was not feasible or even possible. Yet today it stands as a beacon of hope for all to see.”

In August 2015, St. Mary’s expanded its reach to young men by serving boys in grades 4-7.

Modern Progress and Treasured Traditions

The school hopes to remain at the cutting edge of education. Students use technology, as well as more hands-on and problem-based learning activities to enhance critical thinking and conceptual understanding.

“Curriculum is now more technology-driven,” Sr. Clare said. “Our teachers must routinely use digital strategies in their work with students. Our teachers are also increasingly using experimental teaching approaches and integrating technology.”

But while it’s important for the school to embrace the future, Sr. Clare emphasizes the importance of honoring the school’s tradition and history. “While times have changed and societal values continually evolve, our message has remained consistent,” Sr. Clare said. “Students have a code of conduct that they must adhere to that includes respect for self and others… Additionally, they are held accountable for their actions and encouraged daily to become leaders and not followers.”

Even though Sr. Clare is optimistic about the future, she acknowledges that there are challenges. First and foremost, keeping the education affordable for students of a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds is key. Maintaining parental involvement and alumni financial support is important.

Lifelong Lessons

Many St. Mary’s students view their education as part of a larger tradition. For Kathy Taylor, a St. Mary’s alumna who is now executive assistant to the president at Dillard University, her family’s connection to the Sisters of the Holy Family stretches back over a century. Her great-grandmother studied with the Sisters of the Holy Family in Galveston, Texas. From the late 1950s through the 90s, there was always one of her family members in attendance at St. Mary’s Academy.

When asked how the Sisters of the Holy impacted her life, Taylor replied, “I can honestly say that they gave me life. They nurtured, loved, disciplined and raised me. They reinforced the teachings of my parents, aunts and grandparents. They demanded that students respect their peers and teachers.”

The teachings didn’t stop at the classroom. Taylor said the school taught her how to behave outside the classroom as well. “Beyond ABC’s and 123’s, the sisters taught us through their actions how to be a lady. We were required to sit, stand, walk and talk a certain way. We were a sorority, and we were expected to follow the rules in the classroom, on the yard and after hours when not on campus,” Taylor said.

St. Mary’s influence on Taylor extended to her sons, too. While they could not attend the school, Taylor worked at St. Mary’s when they were young, so they spent a lot of time on campus. The boys formed special bonds with Sr. Patricia Hardy and Sr. Miriam Paula.

A Year of Celebration

St. Mary’s has been celebrating its 150th anniversary throughout 2017, and there are more events still to come. In the last week of September, there will be the Women and Girls Who Empower Speaker Series. The first week of November is Homecoming and Reunion Week, with a day of service, a parade, a mass, a party and more. St. Mary’s will close its year with the 150th Anniversary Gala & Exhibition on December 2, with the location still to be announced.

Sr. Clare said that with the help of alumnae and the community, the school can keep its ministry alive.

“Hopefully, the Sisters of the Holy Family will continue our tradition for another 150 years,” Sr. Clare said.

This article originally published in the August 14, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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