A century ago this year, 1918, a little noticed property sale near Covington would have a far-reaching impact on local education.
In that year, the Benedictines, a Catholic religious order that operated nearby St. Joseph Abby sold Dixon Academy, a school they had purchased in 1911. The buyer was another Catholic order, the Christian Brothers, consisting locally of 19 French brothers who, for political reasons, had been exiled from France and Mexico. They worked hard to build a quality school. It would be known as St. Paul’s Catholic School. By the end of the first year the fledgling school had approximately 100 students and a growing reputation. (This Christian Brothers group, which was started in France in 1680 by St. John Baptist de La Salle, is not to be confused with an Irish based order with a similar name, the Congregation of Christian Brothers, that, despite many good works, has been linked to sexual scandals.)
Within the century to follow, the LaSallian Christian Brothers would establish quite a presence in New Orleans education.
Among the schools either owned or operated by the order are De La Salle High in uptown; Christian Brothers middle school in City Park and Rummell High School in Metairie, all described as operating under the “LaSallian” tradition which traces back to the founder with emphasis on faith, quality and respect, among other values.
Though their local presence is now a century old, the Christian Brothers are still comparatively newcomers among religious orders in a city founded by Catholic France and Spain. The Ursulines began providing health care and education in 1726; the Jesuits have been a force locally since 1847. And the list would continue. The Josephites, an order with the mission of educating young black students started St. Augustine High. The first canonized saint to have lived part of her life in New Orleans, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, started the school by that name. (Father Francis Seelos, a German-born Redemptorist priest remains near canonization for his work with yellow fever victims, and Hentriette De Lille, a native of black Creole ancestry, is also on the possible list.)
We mention Catholic education because in this the year of the Tricentennial it is certainly an important part of the city’s story. The religious orders made quality education available at tuitions cheaper than non-sectarian private schools, partially because the educators who belonged to the orders worked for little salary. On the other hand, the argument has been made that Catholic education undermined stronger support for public schools. Parents who were paying for one school system were seldom willing to pay taxes to support another. We suspect, though, that without Catholic education something else would have risen in its place. The appeal of individual school governance, similar to the charter schools, would have always been strong.
Catholic education has changed dramatically from what it once was. The biggest difference is that there are fewer faculties with religious vocations. The global shortage in nuns, priests and brothers is resulting in more lay faculty and administration. Last month Jesuit-run Loyola University hired a lay woman as its president.
We congratulate the Christian Brothers for their centennial anniversary in Louisiana. The story is told of a former De LaSalle principal who one day, while in civilian dress, was asked if he had any children. “Yes,” the principal replied, “I have 443 sons.” May the spirit of the founders continue into the future.