The St. Paul Adult Learning Center has for 30 years billed itself as “an oasis in the midst of poverty, crime and hopelessness” in a high-crime area of the city.
Now, thanks to the hard work of a team of volunteers and donors, the school, which has helped more than 5,000 area residents earn their high school equivalency diplomas, has an actual oasis.
Across the parking lot from the main sanctuary of St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church, just off Gus Young Avenue and tucked between the school’s several modular buildings, is a small Educational Memorial Garden, complete with flowers, fruit trees, vegetables and a bubbling fountain.
Near the fountain stands a statue of the Madonna and Child rescued from the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina from the St. Joseph Convent in New Orleans.
The garden was dedicated in the memory of Sister Kathleen Bahlinger during a recent, well-attended Sunday afternoon service. Bahlinger, one of the school’s founders, passed away just over a year ago.
“Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,” is engraved on a bronze plaque memorializing Bahlinger at the foot of the statue.
That Scripture verse, quoting Jesus in Matthew 25:40, is how Bahlinger lived her life, the plaque says.
“She touched the lives of many here in Baton Rouge, where she and co-founder Sister Lory Schaff, established the St. Paul Adult Learning Center in 1983,” it says on the plaque. “Sr. Kathleen’s commitment to social justice led to her life-long involvement in spearheading and standing tall for equal rights for all.”
Bahlinger was born on Oct. 31, 1937, and grew up in the Hundred Oaks neighborhood in a large family. She died of a heart attack at the age of 76, doing what she loved — working in her garden at a New Orleans convent — on July 6, 2013, according to the plaque and her brother, Harold Bahlinger.
“She really walked the walk and talked the talk,” Bahlinger, 80, reminisced about his younger sister. “She lived in that area with the people she worked with. My mother and father were scared to death, but she said she felt safer there than any place in Baton Rouge. They (neighborhood residents) really appreciated those nuns and looked after them.”
As the youngest of nine children, including seven brothers, Bahlinger said, “she could only be a tomboy. She never played with a doll in her life. She was always out there playing football and kick the can with the boys.”
His sister loved gardening, Bahlinger said.
“She loved to plant sunflowers and sweet peas in the fall, and she always had a fig tree wherever she went,” he said. “She always had some kind of a citrus tree, she loved to raise tomatoes and lettuce and eggplant and okra.”
A spindly satsuma tree and even spindlier fig tree are part of the garden, which also includes tomatoes, okra and several other vegetables, along with flowers and flowering bushes.
Sister Bahlinger was preceded in death by Sister Lory Schaff, who died on Jan. 21, 2013, at the age of 97.
Later this year the center will dedicate one of the center’s several buildings to Sister Lory.
Bahlinger said his sister really grieved Schaff’s death.
“They were like Ike and Mike,” Bahlinger said. “They could really make things happen the two of them together.”
David Jones, director of the St. Paul Adult Learning Center, said the garden will be a learning place for students in cooperation with the Baton Rouge Master Gardeners program.
Although the school is on church property and pays no rent, it is its own unique nonprofit organization that depends on donations for financial survival, Jones said. Over the decades it has helped thousands of area teens and adults learn to read and write and do math.
The educational programs are divided between teens, ages 16-19, and adults. A paid staff of six teaches the teens and a half-dozen volunteers teach the adults, Jones said.
“A lot of them come in with huge academic gaps. I’m talking about someone who is 18 years old reading at a second- or third-grade level,” Jones said. “What we’re accomplishing is really tremendous. A lot of them were still in middle school (level) because they couldn’t pass the LEAP test. A lot of people think they are in adult ed because they couldn’t learn, but they all can learn.”
The key to students’ success, Jones said, is a combination of holding them responsible for working hard at learning and the infusion of daily prayer and brief Bible studies.
“A lot of students have convinced themselves they can’t do math or read. But they get in here and become committed and buy into the philosophy and pretty soon they’re successful and graduating and getting jobs in the workplace because they’re learning discipline,” Jones said. “We’re shaping their character that nobody has developed.”
Everyday begins with a devotion time of five to ten minutes, Jones said, where the staff shares a Scripture and prays over the campus and the students.
“People ask how can these young people be committing these horrendous crimes and be living with no self-control the way they do? It’s because nobody has imparted any of that into them,” Jones said. “We create a culture of spiritual consciousness. Most of them have not had that element in their life.”
Brittany Tolliver, 18, recently earned her GED, has a job and is planning to attend Baton Rouge Community College in the fall.
“The public school system was not my cup of tea,” Tolliver said. “St. Paul is more supporting, more caring, more religious, more everything, to be honest. They give parenting advice, life skills — everything.
“We pray every morning,” Tolliver said. “Anytime I needed to talk to someone about a situation I call Miss (Stephanie) Jones because she will always pray for me and help me. I actually learned a lot from her.”
Donald Spain, 56, a self-employed handyman proficient in most construction trades, is enrolled in the adult track and did much of the work building the garden, which was designed by landscape architect Hampton Landry.
“Growing up in this neighborhood, I took a wrong turn in life and it cost me my freedom and it cost me my schooling,” Spain said. “All my life I’ve been working different jobs, different areas, different places. Just about any type of work I can do. I’m very good at it, but, without an education, it doesn’t mean anything.”
He said he hopes to finish his education in the next few years and perhaps someday own his own company.
“Never give up if education is what you need. Try St. Paul,” Spain advised. “You are never too old. Keep striving and the Lord will reward you.”
St. Paul’s pastor, the Rev. Richard Andrus, said the school and the garden are “a lasting tribute to the creative vision and mission of Sister Kathleen Bahlinger and Sister Lory Schaff.”
“The lives of over 5,000 people have been directly affected and the lives of all their family members have been lifted up because of this,” Andrus said. “It is a powerful ministry and outreach to the community.”
To learn more about the St. Paul Adult Learning Center, visit spalc.org.