Group fights for Cathedral Academy

Cathedral Academy parents, alumni and community members gathered at a meeting Monday evening in hope of finding a way to change the mind of the New Orleans Archdiocese, which announced in early December that the historic French Quarter school will close.

Many at the meeting took issue with the reasons cited by the archdiocese for the move: low enrollment and insufficient finances.

In February, Irene DiPietro of Irene’s Cuisine hosted a fundraiser. In just one day, through an event organized in less than three weeks, $158,000 was raised for the school. For the 2012-2013 school year, Cathedral covered all its own scholarship costs for those who could not afford to pay full tuition and did not require any tuition money from the archdiocese.

DiPietro, whose family has a long and active presence in the French Quarter and who attended the meeting, spoke passionately about the value of keeping the nuns and the culture and tradition of having the school in the neighborhood. She also mentioned a neighbor who agreed to give the school $50,000 each year.

The fundraising power is there, DiPietro said — arguing that the financial aspect is not a legitimate reason for closure.

Nor is enrollment, DiPietro said. She said that it would not be hard to recruit more students if given the go-ahead. “We do have the children, we do have the money,” DiPietro said. “I don’t know why they are so persistent about it closing.”

DiPietro said that French Quarter business owners and residents cherish the school’s presence in the neighborhood and don’t want to lose a vital part of the community that remains in the Quarter. Without it, DiPietro said, the Quarter is closer to becoming “one big Bourbon Street.”

After the announcement that the school would close, Superintendent Jan Lancaster said that with an enrollment under 200 (school officials said current enrollment at Cathedral was 158), the school was simply not sustainable in the long term.

But parents argued that other archdiocese schools do not have 200 children. Other parents noted the plan to build a new $30 million Academy of Our Lady school on the West Bank.

KIPP-run McDonough 15 is scheduled to relocate in about two years, and that would leave no schools remaining in the city’s most-iconic neighborhood.

Valencia Ricard, a parent who helped to organize the meeting, reminded parents to start looking for other schools and begin the enrollment process in case the fight was not successful.

“It’s not going to be easy,” Ricard said, likening the decision to parish closures following Hurricane Katrina that went through despite the protests of parishioners. Ricard also noted Cathedral as a “very valuable” piece of real estate.

Parent Claudia Hahn expressed concern about whether or not the fight even has a chance, or if the archdiocese is willing to listen to the community, saying that the Catholic Church has a tendency to “do what they want to do.”

Ruth Bodenheimer, Hahn’s mother-in-law, could not rave enough about the “unbelievable education” her grandson was receiving at Cathedral. Others at the meeting told of doctors, community leaders and graduates of the nation’s most prominent universities — saying that the success of their children and grandchildren was a direct result of the educational and character foundation built at Cathedral.

Indya Taylor, a sixth-grader and president of the student council, said that she was sad to learn that the school might close. “It’s loving; it’s safe, and it helps children learn,” Taylor said.

For fifth-grader Chris Cuthbert, the news was also hard to hear. “I was sad because all my friends are here, and I’ve been here all my life,” he said.

For Rhonda Wheeler, who brought her daughter Zoe to school when she was 8 years old, “The school saved our lives — and I’m not over-exaggerating.” Zoe had never been to school before.

Wheeler said that when she arrived at the school’s door, she was facing a very difficult time in her life. No one else would take her daughter. Standing at the doors of the school, Wheeler said she did something she never did: She prayed. The next day, the school took Zoe in with open arms and unconditional love, Wheeler said. Now a seventh-grader, Wheeler said Zoe is an honor roll student, a talented artist and writer, and thriving in all aspects.

Wheeler said it was just too painful to imagine the school without children. “All the life that school has and gives — I can’t picture it silent,” Wheeler said. “If we can fight for it, we need to fight for it.”