Sacred Heart School students line up to make their first communion in 1949. During this year, a gymnasium, cafeteria, library, home economics building and additional classrooms were added to the school. (Special to the American Press)
Last Modified: Monday, May 28, 2012 7:06 PM
When 19-year-old Eleanor Figaro stepped off the train in Lake Charles in September 1908, she could not have known the lasting impact she would have on the area’s black community.
Figaro was the first teacher assigned to black Catholics in Lake Charles. She founded Sacred Heart Academy after a group of religious men expressed a need for Christian schooling for their children to the Rev. Hubert Cramers, pastor of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church.
At the time, Immaculate Conception was the only Catholic church in the area. Blacks were forced to stand in the back, after traveling across town to celebrate Mass.
Cramers heard their request and reached out to the pastor of St. John’s Church in Lafayette and to the Holy Family Sisters for help. The sisters had no nuns available at the time, but they made the suggestion for Figaro to come. They hoped that her teaching of academic subjects and Catholic doctrine would grow the number of black communicants and justify a resident priest for the community.
Figaro began teaching the day after she arrived in Lake Charles. Eighteen students gathered for her class in an abandoned dance hall on Enterprise Boulevard known as Green’s Hall.
By the end of the school year, six of the students had not only received academic instruction, but also their First Communion.
In 1910, members of the black Catholic community worked to purchase property at the corner of Louisiana Avenue and Pine Street to build the first school building for Sacred Heart Academy. They built the “little red schoolhouse” themselves.
For the black community in Lake Charles, Sacred Heart stood for more than just a Catholic education. It also served as their social center, and Figaro helped plan numerous dances for everyone to participate in.
The number of children who attended Sacred Heart, along with the number of black Catholics in the area, grew larger each year. Figaro enlisted the help of her roommate, Mary “Tulla” Ryan, to teach the students. Together, Figaro and Ryan are credited as the figureheads of the school, the ones who cemented Sacred Heart’s legacy as the leading institution for black Catholics in Lake Charles.
On Aug. 6, 1918, the school faced a setback. A hurricane hit Southwest Louisiana and blew down the schoolhouse. Figaro was not deterred; she moved the school back to Green’s Hall, where it would remain for a year.
In August 1919, the Rev. Anthony Hackett was named pastor for the black Catholics of Lake Charles, and by late October 1919 the “little red schoolhouse” was repaired. It now served as the church, the school and the community center.
In 1920, Sacred Heart parishioners purchased property on Mill Street and Louisiana Avenue to build a small rectory for Hackett.
Soon Sacred Heart found that it needed more money and manpower to support its growing student and parishioner population.
In May 1922, its prayers were answered: Hackett secured the services of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, the order created by St. Katharine Drexel to meet the needs of black and Native American Catholics.
Drexel financed the building of a convent, and three sisters were sent to help at the school. She also paid for a second story to be added to the church building. By this time, the church had moved into its own building, although the exact date is not noted in recorded histories. The school was moved from the “little red schoolhouse” to the new second story. Around 200 students were enrolled in the school.
One May 29, 1923, the first graduation was held for the three students who completed the seventh grade. That fall, a high school was added to Sacred Heart. The first high school graduation would be held in 1927.
In 1924, the student population grew too large for the second story of the church, and the kindergarten and first-grade classes were moved back into the “little red schoolhouse.” The next year, Drexel donated the funds for renovations to the schoolhouse, and second- and third-grade classes were able to be held in the building.
Drexel continued to show her support for the school. Around this time, she donated the funds to build a domestic science building at Sacred Heart. She also helped the parish purchase a large plot of land next to the rectory that would be used as a playground for the children.
In 1940, the school was admitted to the Southern Association of Secondary Schools and Colleges.
After World War II, the school again saw a rise in enrollment and began to work on improving the school buildings and grounds.
In 1949, a gymnasium, a cafeteria and more classrooms were built. A library and home economics building were added later that year.
The next year, school founder Figaro retired from teaching, but remained active in Sacred Heart parish affairs. By the time Figaro died in 1953, more than 400 students had attended Sacred Heart.
The school was thriving at the time of her death, but times were changing, and the education system underwent major changes in the following years.
After racially segregated schools were officially banned by the U.S. Supreme Court and the federal government mandated integration, Sacred Heart’s school began to struggle. Black children now had other, attractive options for their educations. Church authorities advised that the high school be closed and its students attend St. Charles Academy and Landry Memorial — two Catholic schools that later became St. Louis Catholic High School.
In 1967, Sacred Heart School held its last high school graduation.
Integration also resulted in lower enrollment in the grade school. Parents began sending their children to formerly all-white schools, which were better equipped.
Other social factors played a role. Black families began moving south of Broad Street, and Sacred Heart was no longer the neighborhood school. New and improved public school facilities also lured some families away from the Catholic institution.
The school worked to adapt to its changing population size and in 1973, parish leaders turned the “little red schoolhouse” into an early childhood center. In 1978, it was named the Eleanor Figaro Early Childhood Center in honor of the school’s founder and original teacher.
The school’s overall population continued to dwindle, but the early childhood center played a vital role for the finances and population of the school.
In 2000, the woman responsible for the physical needs of Sacred Heart was honored by the Catholic Church. Drexel was canonized Oct. 1, 2000, and the school was renamed in her honor the same year. It officially became known as Sacred Heart-St. Katharine Drexel School.
In 2005, Hurricane Rita severely damaged the school. It cost $2.2 million for the school to be rebuilt and took around three years to complete construction.
In 2008, the school celebrated its centennial by moving into the new building and in 2010, it received a historic preservation award from the Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation.
The Sacred Heart-St. Katherine Drexel School’s website describes the school’s rich history well: “104 years of living Black History and commitment to the Gospel of Jesus.”