Katrina brings influx of Catholic students

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 30, 2015

A study done by Trulia last year indicated New Orleans had a higher percentage of private school students than anywhere else in the United States, with one in four students being privately educated.

Education Week reported that before hurricane Katrina hit, nearly 50,000 students were enrolled in 108 archdiocesan schools in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina.

When the storm hit and families were forced to evacuate, those students needed somewhere to go. Former St. Aloysius Principal Michele Connelly said some of them needed a place for two days, some two months, some two years and some permanently. Sixty-five of them ended up at Vicksburg Catholic School.

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After the storm hit, things had to be done quickly to get Vicksburg Catholic School back open for its students, said Connelly, who now serves as executive director for the United Way of West Central Mississippi.

“It was my first year and we had been in school about three weeks,” she said. “Our thoughts were how are we going to reopen with the students we have. And then we found out there was an enormous amount of people who were interested in enrolling their children into school, which blew my mind. I couldn’t comprehend that.”

Connelly said the small school was not prepared to take on that many new students, but they did what they had to do to accommodate those in need.

“That Monday, Jennifer (Henry) and I sat in my office at St. Aloysius High School from 7:30 in the morning until about 7 or 8 that night with family, after family, after family, after family coming in asking if we could find them a place for their child to go to school,” she said. “That day was one of the most emotion-packed I have ever had. There were family members who weren’t with them, and they didn’t know where they were or if they were going to safely make it. I knew in the back of my head there was going to be a lot of things we would have to do, but at that time, we were just in the moment with those families, extremely intimate moments, over and over and over again.”

Connelly said her own daughter was in fourth or fifth grade at the time and she, along with her friends, gave prospective families tours one by one after they interviewed to join the school.

“It was so busy that day in my office with one family in my office after another that I had no clue that the actual student body of St. Aloysius and St. Francis Xavier was growing so much throughout the day,” she said. “I didn’t know that until I finally got out of my office and saw a large amount of Vicksburg Catholic School family in the hallways with the new families.“

Connelly said 65 students was a massive amount to take on overnight. “We had to get more desks. We had to get more books,” she said. “It didn’t matter if we had enough books or desks, we were going to embrace these families and welcome them into our community and the rest of it was going to fall into place because it had to.”

Connelly said many of the students came with nothing.

“We had to help find them clothes,” she said. “Some of them came in the uniforms from the Catholic schools they were at in New Orleans. It was so cool to see. They were wearing their uniforms because that’s what they had.”

Other students were worried about their athletic careers, which were interrupted along with the rest of their lives after Hurricane Katrina.

“There were three young men who joined the football team as seniors who were very upset,” she said. “They immediately joined the football team, immediately started playing and immediately became a part of that family. The football team just embraced them.”

The similarities between the parochial schools in New Orleans and in Vicksburg were striking, and they ran much deeper than the plaid skirts, Connelly said.

“We had our first pep rally and the father of one of those boys was standing next to me and started crying when the fight song started playing,” she said. “I didn’t know our fight song was that emotional. It was the same fight song they had at their school in New Orleans. It was like a Godsend. Words cannot express what happened that year.”

All evacuees who attended Vicksburg Catholic Schools came free of charge, Connelly said.

“We didn’t have to ask them for a penny,” she said. “There was a generous donor who gave money to the Diocese of Jackson, and eventually some money trickled down for some of the expenses we had to have the children at our school. We didn’t expect any. We weren’t asking for any. We were doing what we knew was right, which was allowing these babies to come into our school.”

Connelly said at the time, they didn’t know how they were going to do it, but they knew they would find a way to make things work.

“You couldn’t really tell the impact you were making until one at a time they began to leave and they began to tell you, ‘I made it through this because of, and I made it through this because of,’ that you sat back and were like, ‘Wow,’” she said. “It was a very powerful experience.”

For more information about the Trulia study, visit http://www.trulia.com/LA/New_Orleans/.