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St. Francis de Sales Cathedral School celebrates 150 years

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St. Francis de Sales Cathedral School: Steeped in history and tradition

By Mary Ann é Goodwin

The founding of St. Francis de Sales Cathedral School in Houma is the cornerstone of Catholic education in Terrebonne Parish, and has a long and storied 150 year history with several name changes.

First came the building and property … initially, education of children in Terrebonne Parish was held in over 46 one-room school houses scattered around Terrebonne Parish. Then, before the Civil War was to begin, the Houma College was planned. Its stockholders of local prominent citizens had a grand vision for a magnificent school for Protestant children.

They employed the famous architect Henry Howard, who designed the historic Pontalba Apartments flanking Jackson Square in New Orleans, as well as the plantation homes of Madewood, Nottaway, Belle Alliance and Bocage. On the nine acres now bounded by Barrow, Point, Aycock and Bond streets, they erected a beautiful antebellum two-story red brick building with a wooden cupola resting on a large garret. As fortune would have it, their new school only operated from 1858 to 1865 with its closure coinciding with the end of the Civil War. The beautiful edifice they had financed was now empty.

Just a few years later, the Marianite Sisters of Holy Cross, a religious order of women dedicated to teaching and catechesis, received a request from the Archbishop of New Orleans asking the Sisters to open a school in Houma. Accepting the task, five Sisters (Claire, Stanislaus, Sebastian, Catherine and Mother Eutychius) planned their journey to Houma, not at all the quick trip we know today. They left New Orleans early in the morning traveling by train for their new mission. The Sisters waited patiently while the train ferry moved the train cars one at a time across the Mississippi River. By early afternoon they disembarked at the Terrebonne station in Schriever for the hackney coach ride to Houma and the home of a local parishioner.

Once in Houma, arrangements were made for an “act of transfer” of stock from the Board of Trustees of the Houma College granting its nine acre grounds and building to the Marianites. The Sisters, three local ladies, and assorted helpers had the daunting task of restoring the school which had been empty for several years. Although still lovely on the outside, the interior was wrecked. The walls were defaced, the roof decayed and leaking; doors and blinds were broken providing easy access for critters. Outside, the fence was battered, allowing local cattle a

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and horses to freely roam the property.

After much hard work by the Sisters and volunteers, the Academy of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, a parochial school, opened to 25 girls on Oct. 11, 1870. The school was a success and thus the cornerstone of Catholic education in Terrebonne Parish was laid.

In the early years of the school, the people of the Houma-Terrebonne area continued their struggles with tropical storms, crop failures and the ever present disease carrying mosquitoes. During the historic Yellow Fever epidemic of 1878, the Sisters bravely ministered to dying victims. Through all these challenges, the school flourished and in 1879, Rose Cuneo was its first graduate. That year also marked the first name change, thus avoiding confusion with another Marianite school with the same name. The Houma school was renamed St. Francis de Sales Academy.

The school session of 1880-1881 saw continuous heavy rains and two severe snow storms, all of which damaged the roof of the convent. The numerous roof leaks caused plaster to fall in the dormitories, chapel and hallways. Additionally, in their effort to escape the inclement weather, snakes took up residence in the school. These events prompted hasty repairs and the addition of sidewalks.

In 1888, parishioners of St. Francis and their pastor appealed to the archbishop, requesting Catholic education for boys. The Marianites received approval and in 1890 an elementary boys’ school opened in a horseshoe extension to the Academy. In 1918, the wooden “Boys’ College” was built adjacent to the church where the prayer garden and rectory are now. At one time, 2nd grade boys and possibly others over the decades were at the original school on Point St. Speculation being the Marianite teacher was unable to make the daily walk to and from the boys’ school.

The graduating Class of 1923 worked diligently to raise funds to purchase a large Sacred Heart statue for the school. The larger-than-life statue became the focal point of the entrance walkway into the school and remained there for over 40 years. Present day school

In addition to teaching at the a priest. Also under Mother Bercham’s Academy, the Sisters established stewardship, the old wooden convent religious vacation schools for public was renovated and painted, classrooms school children in Terrebonne Parish were added, and the grounds beginning in 1933. Their catechesis landscaped. The next year, 1939, the gradually extended from Schriever Mothers’ Club was organized, and was to Raceland to Coteau and the to become the forerunner of today’s Cocommunities above and below each of op Club. the Houma bayous. Their Pointe-auxWorld War II changed life for Chenes school ministered to the Indian everyone. In 1942, the Sisters attended and black children. classes to become certified First Aid

On April 7, 1938, the bell of the course teachers for adults. A part of Academy, in unison with those of the convent was converted to a War the church, tolled for Father August Rationing Center registering over Vandebilt, who, throughout his long a thousand applicants. Students pastorate (1914-1938), had spent were organized into Victory Corps, himself in the cause of Catholic Junior Red Cross and United Services education. Organization (USO) Canteen. With

Also in 1938, Mother Superior fathers and brothers called to military Berchams, widely known as “a veteran service, students were released in champion of boys,” spear-headed the early May to assist in harvesting crops. project for admission of boys into the During the regular school year, makehigh school. The first boy to graduate up classes were held on Saturdays. was Philip Whitney who later became St. Francis pastor Msgr. a October 2020 • Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux • Bayou Catholic • 35

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Artist rendition of the original school on Point Street

Maurice Schexnayder established the Boys’ Athletic Program under Coach Buddy Marcello in the fall of 1950. Baseball and football fields were established on the spacious grounds of the Point St. school and the Terrier mascot was chosen by the first co-ed cheerleaders.

The year 1951 marked the debut of the Houma Courier’s weekly column, “Tales from de Sales,” focusing on happenings at the school. Long-time faculty member Tracy Duplantis was the author under the pen name La Plume, chosen to honor St. Francis de Sales, who is usually portrayed with a book and feather pen.

Over time, student enrollment eventually out-grew the original buildings. A new three story red brick building located next to the church on Verret St. was ready just in time for the original baby boomer class. What had been two incoming classes swelled to three! In January 1952, the girls, plus the boys’ second grade class, left the original Point St. location carrying their books to the new building on Verret St. The 1st-12th grade boys, minus the 2nd graders, had a very short walk across the church yard from the Boys’ College. Now all students were in the new building but not yet co-ed. From September 1951 until May 1965, 1st-6th grade was co-ed at the new building; 7th-12th grade girls continued in the new building while 7th-12th grade boys moved to the original school on Point St.

Brothers of the Sacred Heart (Linus, Fomuald, Osmond [Donald McGrath] and Casimir) arrived in August 1952 to teach 7th-12th grade boys at the original buildings on Point St. with Brother Casimir serving as principal. In January 1953, they were joined by Brother Carl Evans. It was at this time that the school’s name evolved into several names for the three branches— St. Francis de Sales (SFS) Elementary, SFS Girls’ High and SFS Boys’ High. At some point in the late 1950s the iconic original red brick school on Point St. was painted white.

The history of the school would be incomplete if mention wasn’t given to a special Marianite at St. Francis, Sister Fabian. She had trained at St. Pius X in New York and was an extraordinarily gifted musician, music teacher and choir director. She taught music during the school day to 4th6th grade boys and girls, and choir to 7th-12th grade girls. In addition, she conducted piano and organ lessons after school. For every 9:30 a.m. Sunday high Mass, seasonal liturgies, as well as all parish funerals, she was able to simultaneously pump and play the massive pipe organ while directing the large three part girls’ choir. She continues to be fondly remembered by many today.

Former students fondly remember two big events of the next few years: they took a short walk to the Bijou Theater on Main St. in 1956 for a private morning showing of The Ten Commandments, and in 1961 the Penny Party which eventually became today’s Bazaar, was begun by Sister Catherine of Siena.

Over the years, changing needs saw the Youth Center being built in 1962. Its second floor full court was used for high school boys’ basketball and girls’ physical education classes. The open and partial first floor had locker rooms and was eventually closed-in to create class and meeting rooms. October 1962 also brought emergency preparedness precautions to be taken for the Cuban Missile Crisis. Each student placed a blanket and a gallon jug of water in their locker in the event of an attack, which fortunately never came.

The Class of 1965 was the last to graduate from the St. Francis de Sales Girls’ and Boys’ High Schools. In the fall of that same year, the junior and senior high students entered the new Houma Central Catholic High School which was renamed Vandebilt Catholic High midway through that first year. Seventh graders only attended for a short period of time before it was decided they should remain at their various Catholic elementary schools. With the closing of the Boys’ High school, the iconic Sacred Heart statue was relocated to the front of the Marianite convent on Grinage St. Almost 50 years later, it was moved to its present home in front of Vandebilt Catholic High School.

With the opening of the high school under a new name, the elementary school became St. Francis de Sales School. The former high school rooms were no longer needed for their intended purposes and the elementary school gradually transformed them. The home-economics complex became the focal point for special needs children. Later, what had been the kitchen became the teacher break room and the original sewing room became a federal math/reading lab. The library and science labs became Project Read and Resource rooms for children with learning differences, while the typing lab became a regular classroom. The music room complex became a reading lab with offices, then an Apple computer lab and is currently a hands-on science lab. The large auditorium became a

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the library. Sadly, in the early 1980s, a fire (probably started with pigeons bringing a smoldering cigarette into their very dry attic nest) damaged the stage area of the once auditorium beyond repair. It was remodeled to become a library/computer storage area. The library has been enhanced with a full state of the art technology lab.

Marianite sisters continued to teach and serve as administrators until 1997. With their departure, a Sister of Divine Providence, Sister Annalee Prather, C.D.P., arrived to serve until 2010 as teacher and religion coordinator. Since then, the Tradition of Excellence has been carried on by an all lay staff. It was also around the time of the last name change for the school. Since it was adjacent to the Cathedral of St. Francis, the pastor of the Cathedral, Very Rev. Vicente (Vic) DeLa Cruz, V.F., added that distinction to the school’s name. It became and is St. Francis de Sales Cathedral School (SFCS).

Today, SFCS continues to provide a strong, well-rounded academic Catholic education to pre-school three year olds through 7th grade. Teachers are using up-to-date technology tools; students are taught an integrated technology rich curriculum; and, they are able to participate in various clubs, activities and sports in conjunction with Vandebilt Catholic High School. With the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, the staff and students successfully transitioned into distance learning for the end of the 2019-2020 school year.

St. Francis de Sales Cathedral School acknowledges its debt of gratitude to the Marianite Sisters of Holy Cross, the Brothers of the Sacred Heart and dedicated lay teachers who’ve made it possible for St. Francis to carry on its Tradition of Excellence.

The school will be celebrating the 150th anniversary of its founding with many in-house activities throughout the 2020-2021 school year. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the limitations of social distancing during this phase of reopening, St. Francis will mark the actual anniversary with the regularly scheduled 11 a.m. Sunday Mass on Oct. 11. In hopes that more people will be allowed to attend, a grander celebration including a picnic is being scheduled for the 11 a.m. Sunday Mass on the Feast of St. Francis de Sales, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021. (Mary Anné Goodwin spent 32 years of her career at St. Francis de Sales Cathedral School. She taught 5th and 7th grade English and religion, computer literacy to PK-4 through 7th grade, served as the technology coordinator for 19 years, and was the administrative liaison for nine years. She also worked in the after school program and enjoyed being the morning greeter for car riders for almost 20 years.) BC

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Community

Take Action: Register for a Mary Bird Perkins TGMC breast cancer screening

By SCOTT MILLER Mary Bird Perkins TGMC Cancer Center

Discovering breast cancer in its earliest stage can help lead to better outcomes, making it extremely important for women to get screened for the disease. With over 180 women in the Bayou Region diagnosed with breast cancer every year, it is easy to see why it is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among women throughout the country. Starting in their 20s, women should get a clinical breast exam at least every three years. Once reaching the age of 40, they should receive an annual exam and mammogram, but every woman should talk to their doctor to determine the appropriate age to begin screenings, based on personal risk factors.

Mary Bird Perkins TGMC Cancer Center has provided free breast cancer screenings in the Bayou Region since 2010. The Prevention on the Go program provides prevention, education and early detection services to residents via mobile medical clinics that travel to where people live, worship, shop and play. Since breast cancer screenings began in the area 10 years ago, over 3,200 people have been screened at 129 specific screening events, resulting in over 25 cancers diagnosed. “Early detection literally saved my life by discovering my cancer at an early stage; I understand how truly lucky I was to be diagnosed so early,” said Lyn Klein, breast cancer survivor.

During COVID-19, screening participants can rest assured that the Cancer Center has taken steps to ensure the safety of every person we serve. A number of practices are in place to ensure the safety of everyone, such as increased frequency of our cleaning and disinfecting practices for hightouch areas and appointments for all screenings to ensure social distancing. Visit mbptgmc.org to learn more about Prevention on the Go and the safety protocols we have in place or call (888) 616 – 4687 to make an appointment for your breast cancer screening. BC

“Early detection literally saved my life by discovering my cancer at an early stage; I understand how “ truly lucky I was to be diagnosed so early. Lyn Klein breast cancer survivor