School’s shuttering saddens parents

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER --  Cathedral Academy in the French Quarter recently announced it is closing. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Cathedral Academy in the French Quarter recently announced it is closing.

Faced with this Monday’s announcement that Cathedral Academy will close at the end of this school year, parent Theresa Taylor said she is in a state of disbelief.

“It’s been terrible,” she said, of the week following the meeting at which Dr. Jan Lancaster, superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, told the parents of the archdiocese’s decision. “All the parents are very upset,” Taylor said.

According to Lancaster, the school is just not sustainable with an enrollment under 200 students.

Cathedral Academy was founded in 1914 and is in the French Quarter just a few blocks from its affiliated church, St. Louis Cathedral.

For almost a century, the neighborhood elementary school has educated everyone from Cuban refugees and St. Louis Cathedral altar boys to children from the nearby housing projects and the children of immigrant businesses owners.

Cathedral was the first school to reopen on the east bank after Hurricane Katrina, according to archdiocese spokeswoman Sarah McDonald.

Peter Finney Sr. grew up two blocks from Cathedral on Chartres Street and attended the school in the 1930s. Finney said he remembers the Teresian Sisters who taught him as very strict but very good teachers. The education prepared him well for his continued schooling at Jesuit High School and into college, he said. Finney recalled school outings to Pelican baseball games and to see President Franklin D. Roosevelt in City Park. Even though they did not have a gymnasium, Finney said, he also has fond memories of playing basketball and softball in the school’s strong athletic program.

Arthur Brocato, grandson of Angelo Brocato, lived in the Quarter and attended the school in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Brocato’s mother went to school in the 1920s, as did the parents of other students. “It was like a big family,” he said.

Being part of the St. Louis Cathedral itself was very special, Brocato said, describing the annual coronation ceremony brought from old European traditions. The Teresian Sisters who taught them were based in Spain, but also came from Cuba, Mexico and Central America, Brocato said.

But with far fewer families with small children in the neighborhood today, Brocato said, it is not entirely a surprise that the shift in demographics cannot support the school. The close-knit family-oriented Quarter neighborhood he grew up in is almost nonexistent, he said.

But for Taylor, who brought her children to the school the October following Hurricane Katrina, Cathedral was a blessing. “They were so welcoming,” Taylor said, recounting as one of the nuns gave her a hug. “I thought, this is love,” she said.

Without hesitation, Cathedral brought in displaced students, and some teachers, from all over the city, she said.

“It was so selfless,” Taylor said. “And for them to push this school aside — it’s not right. It’s not fair to the parents, it’s not fair to the dedicated sisters, and it’s not fair to the kids.”

Lancaster said the school’s leadership is “phenomenal,” and the archdiocese’s decision has nothing to do with the quality of the school. “Everything is going very well there,” Lancaster said. “It’s a wonderful school.”

Rather, the decision is part of the archdiocese’s two-year strategic plan, which included an assessment of the viability of schools.

In the past 10 years, Lancaster said, total enrollment has dropped from about 49,000 to 38,000. There were three factors in the decision, Lancaster said: enrollment, demographics and facilities. “There are just not enough kids in the area to sustain Cathedral for the long term,” she said. Lancaster said the facilities are also in need of a renovation.

But Taylor said she does not understand why the school is being closed if they are just 35 students short of the 200 mark.

Taylor said there are other single mothers who are making sacrifices to send their children to Cathedral because they have seen their children thrive there and are doing everything they can to be proactive about their children’s educations.

The school also has a proven record of turning around youngsters with behavior issues who need extra attention, she said.

“This school has changed a lot of kids’ lives,” Taylor said.

Frank France, who attended Cathedral in the 1930s and is the founder and director of the Kehoe-France School, said he has “such a negative feeling about it closing.” France said he has only fond memories, especially of the Teresian Sisters, who ran a “very tight ship” but left himself and his peers well prepared for their futures.

Lancaster said St. Stephen’s Catholic Central School has an available spot for every student who wishes to transfer.

“It’s a very sad day when a school closes,” Lancaster said. “It’s heartbreaking.”

But Taylor said she doesn’t want her children anywhere else. “I don’t want to see this happen to our school. It’s devastation all over again,” Taylor said. “It feels like we’ve been hit with another storm.”