Sacred Heart / St. Katharine Drexel School at 1100 Mill St. in Lake Charles will be closed indefinitely as classes end this month. (Donna Price / American Press)
Last Modified: Sunday, May 27, 2012 8:05 PM
Move past the secure southside door at Sacred Heart/Katharine Drexel School and St. Katharine’s photo image will peer at you from a wall in the hallway: serene, attentive, but in charge.
It’s one of many precious images that evoke memories of a treasured institution more than a century in age. Folk artist Eddie B. Mormon’s rendering of the Little Red Schoolhouse, which predated the current school building, adorns a wall in the school’s front office. The cheery visage of Eleanor Figaro, who founded the school in Lake Charles in 1908, is captured in a photo overhanging the desk of its current principal, Hattie Ashton.
“The alumni and alumnae of Sacred Heart School are an impressive group,” Lake Charles Bishop Glen John Provost said. “Bishops, priests, nuns, leaders in business, law, science and education walked the halls of the school as students, along with the imposing figure of St. Katharine Drexel, whose initial grant enabled both the church and the convent to be built.”
Sacred Heart School’s rich past is firmly footed in its proud history; its future is another matter altogether. When the last student picked up his report card Friday, the final day of the 2011-12 school year, the doors closed and won’t soon be reopened. Sacred Heart, victim of low enrollment and daunting debt, will not reopen for the 2012-13 school year; that’s for certain. After that, nobody knows.
“The parish may revive the school,” said Monsignor Ronald Groth, pastor at Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church these last two years. “The bishop mandated to leave the possibility. You never know.”
But the parish itself, not the diocese, would have the choice — as well as the financial responsibility — of reopening and operating the school. Right now, that responsibility rests heavy upon the shoulders of the church at 1102 Mill St., the sixth-oldest in the Diocese of Lake Charles.
Groth said financially strapped Sacred Heart has borrowed heavily and sought out alumni support to keep the school operating these last two years. Provost gave $35,000 from his own funds to help that cause. But the church, which owns the school, still owes more than $100,000 on a loan used to keep the school afloat this now-completed school year. The results since then have fallen well short of the hopes of school supporters.
The school operated in 2011-12 on an annual budget of some $636,000. That money pays the administration, teachers, staff, utilities and other costs of the school. But Groth said in order to generate those basic budget funds, the school must enroll some 135 tuition-paying students. To appreciate the problem, consider these annual student enrollment numbers since the 2006-07 school year: 134 in 2006-07, 113 in 2007-08, 111 in 2008-09, 115 in 2009-10, 90 in 2010-11. In 2011-12, the school enrolled about 75 students; of those, 14 were in a state-paid pre-school program. Here’s how bad things had gotten: The first-grade class had four students this year.
Those diminishing numbers reflect a Catholic school situation that has turned dire. The issue was brought before the Lake Charles City Council in late March and early April. There, Ken Schexnider, a spokesman for the school’s alumni association, asked City Council members to approve a resolution asking Catholic church leaders here to delay a decision on closing the school. Schexnider said the decision to close the school had come as “a complete shock,” and that the school was “absolutely on target” with the goal to enroll 60 new students in March. The board approved the resolution.
But Kimberlee Gazzolo, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Lake Charles, said last week that when the City Council met to consider its proclamation, the school had registered five students for next school year and that only a handful of families attended an early enrollment open house. That was ominous, she said. Last year, Sacred Heart had enrolled 35 students in June 2011 for the 2011-12 year; the final tally for enrollment was nowhere near sufficient to meet bills.
“There was a push for commitment, but without support,” she said of the school’s latest effort to enroll students. “We need money and students.” Otherwise, she said, it is simply too risky to sign teacher contracts and commit to another financially perilous school year.
It is easy enough to understand the affection felt for Sacred Heart, which opened under Figaro, then a recent high school graduate from Lafayette, in 1908. It was the only option for black Catholics seeking a Catholic education. Figaro taught classes at Greene’s Hall on Enterprise Boulevard for two years until the Little Red School House, the school’s first permanent home, was opened at the corner of Louisiana and Pine streets in 1910. Provost said Figaro was a “saintly figure” who was heroic in keeping the fledgling school operating, and oftentimes served without regard to her own pay.
In 1922, Mother Katharine Drexel and her Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament — the religious order dedicated to serving black and Native American students with educational opportunities — were recruited to help with the growing student enrollment at Sacred Heart. The school was expanded under their direction and with their assistance, and Drexel offered substantial financial support. A high school program opened the following year, and the school entered a long period of prosperity. In 1967, the high school closed as Catholic schools in Lake Charles were integrated. For her tireless commitment to serving black and Native American students, Katharine Drexel was canonized a saint in October 2000, a point of immense pride at Sacred Heart.
“St. Katharine Drexel actually walked the grounds here,” Ashton, a lifelong Sacred Heart parishioner, said wistfully during a recent interview. “There are still people who remember that and speak of what she did for the community. That’s one reason we wanted to keep that legacy of a quality, Christian education.”
Another reason so many alumni wanted to keep the school operating is because they remember the quality education they received over the years at Sacred Heart. Ashton said church members and alumni remember the good efforts of Figaro and Mary “Tulla” Ryan, who also helped operate the school, the well-prepared and highly qualified nuns who taught there, and parents and church members who dedicated time, treasure and toil to build and sustain the school.
Alumni became very successful people both within the church — Sacred Heart graduated two bishops, many priests and nuns — and outside the church. Many of those successful alumni moved away.
Sacred Heart’s past luster was not enough to slow or reverse declining enrollment.
Gazzolo said the school was affected in recent years by an economy that prevented black parents from considering Catholic education, by the drop in enrollment and by an abundance of other educational options for black parents, including public schools and a new charter school in Lake Charles.
Groth said the parish itself, which is responsible for the school’s debts, was imperiled by the bleak financial picture. Church programs were limited, he said, because the bulk of parish financing went to the school. And there simply were not enough children at the parish to fill the school, even if their parents had chosen to send them there.
No matter the cause of the enrollment decline, the result here was little different than at urban Catholic schools elsewhere across the country: The doors have closed, at least for now.
Gazzolo said although Sacred Heart won’t reopen next year, St. Katharine’s mission of offering quality Catholic education to minority children “absolutely” will continue unabated in the Lake Charles Diocese. Gazzolo said after the decision was made to not reopen the school next year, her office notified Sacred Heart parents and contacted other Catholic schools to find which ones had space for new students. Provost said Sacred Heart students would have a “preferential opportunity” for those available openings. So far, takers have been few.
“The doors of our Catholic schools are open to any child who desires what we have to offer,” Provost said in a prepared statement. In addition, he said, the Bishop Scholarship Fund, which was initiated to help needy students attend Catholic schools, will continue to help current Sacred Heart students at their new schools, should they transfer to another local Catholic school. Tuition for transferring Sacred Heart students would remain fixed at $3,715, Sacred Heart’s current tuition. The Bishop Scholarship Fund has allocated $508,724.45 to Sacred Heart alone since 1995.
Provost said under some conditions the school might someday reopen. Finances must be addressed. Teacher pay must be increased. Curriculum must be improved.
Groth said the parish collections have actually increased at Sacred Heart since the announcement was made that the school will not open next year. He said he believes that’s because many older parishioners had grown weary of donating to a school that was not succeeding financially. While parishioners are saddened by the news, he said, he believes the parish will heal.
Even without students, a saint’s work at Sacred Heart will not be forgotten, the bishop said.
“Places where saints, holy women and men, have lived and worked keep a certain aura,” he said. “This is not surprising. Holiness of life leaves an impression.
“For this reason, one can see evidence of what St. Katharine and her co-workers accomplished — devout Catholic laity in the African-American community who know their faith, love it and practice it.
“While the mission remains the same, the historic context has changed. The challenge is to first recognize the needs of today, just as our forbearers did in their day. Then, God will show us what to do.”
Posted By: Doug On: 5/27/2012
Title: What A Shame!!
Another sad end for the African-American Community in Lake Charles.