Catholic Schools Are Saving New Orleans’ Children

Deal W. Hudson
July 23, 2009

Catholics Teach the Children of New Orleans

Since the Katrina disaster, the schools of the Archdiocese of New Orleans have swelled to double the enrollment of the local public schools – 40,000 to 20,000. Rev. Neal McDermott, O.P., superintendent of the Catholic schools, told me yesterday that the archdiocese is facing a financial crunch when the $10 million in Catholic Charities money, allocated in 2006 to help the schools following the hurricane, runs out.

“Beginning in June 2010, we will have to find $700,000 a year to replace those funds,” he said. (Gov. Bobby Jindal eased some of the financial burdens by getting a voucher bill passed for kindergarten through fourth grade.)

Since all the public schools in New Orleans have been officially pronounced “failing,” parents have been moving their children to charter schools and private schools, but above all to Catholic schools, where 60 percent of the 40,000 students are non-Catholic.

This past spring the Catholic high schools graduated 2,785 seniors, with an amazing 96 percent being admitted into college and another 2 percent into the military. That compares with a 40 percent graduation rate in the public schools. “We teach students from the same neighborhood as the public schools, but we act in loco parentis, because many of these children get little supervision or food at home,” Father McDermott explains. The Catholic schools provide their students’ breakfast, lunch, a snack, and afternoon supervision so that homework is completed before the students go home.

Father McDermott had to consolidate a number of “central schools” in the inner city to accommodate the demand for Catholic education. One of the archdiocesan schools is the Cathedral Academy in the French Quarter, where five Nashville Dominicans are teaching. These five sisters walked through the streets of the Quarter recruiting students, including some from a cruise ship docked in the harbor, where the families of firemen and other service personnel were living after the floods.

“The sisters are applauded wherever they go,” Father McDermott told me.

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Speaking of the Nashville Dominicans…

The sisters praised by Father McDermott are the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville. These Sisters of St. Dominic are among a relative handful of women religious who are revitalizing Catholic schools with teaching sisters. The Nashville order is almost 150 years old but has undergone a remarkable burst of growth in the past 20 years. As reported by the Catholic News Agency, there are 230 Nashville Dominicans serving in 34 schools around the country, as well as some in Australia, at the invitation of George Cardinal Pell. Their remarkable growth continues, with 45 sisters in their initial formation program and even more expected in the fall. On Friday, a Mass will be celebrated to “witness the Religious Profession of Perpetual Vows” of sisters at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville. Last year, in 2008, eleven sisters made final vows.

Talking about the young women entering the community, Sr. Mary Emily, vocations director, told CNA, “They could have successful careers, and if called, would make beautiful wives and mothers. These women are healthy, wholesome, bright, and idealistic. Yet they have heard the call to follow Christ, and they are answering it… These young women are women in-love.”

This description of the sisters from their vocations director rings true to anyone who has had the chance to experience the vitality of their community, or anyone who has encountered their work in places like New Orleans; Dumfries, Virginia; or Columbia, South Carolina.

♦ ♦ ♦

The Catholic Leadership Conference Celebrates Vitality in the Church

Promoting and celebrating “vitality” in the Church in the face of “cultural hostility” will be the theme of the 12th-annual Catholic Leadership Conference over September 10-11 in Orlando, Florida. “CLC has invited speakers who epitomize the kind of vitality needed throughout our Church,” says Bud Hansen, a founding member of the steering committee. Bishop Thomas Wenski will welcome the meeting of Church leaders from around the country by celebrating Mass at the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe, with Rev. Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, concelebrating.

At the dinner that evening, popular Fox news commentator Rev. Jonathan Morris will talk about his experience as a priest in the mainstream media. Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, who played a leading role in protesting the award given by Notre Dame to President Barack Obama, will offer an overview of the controversy and its impact. And popular Catholic blogger Thomas Peters, of the American Papist, will brief the conference on the importance of Catholic media online.

The direct impact of the Obama presidency on the parish will be the subject of the talk by Rev. Jerry Pokorsky, a priest of the diocese of Arlington, Virginia, and a well-known commentator on EWTN. Maggie Gallagher, president of the Institute for Marriage and Family, will describe how she helped lead the fight to pass Proposition 8 in California. Father Pavone will celebrate the closing Mass, and former Sen. Rick Santorum will discuss his view of “Five Ways to Revitalize our Church.”

(Contact Liz Kenny at for conference information.)


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