The area near Slidell between Bayou Bonfouca and Bayou Liberty had a two-room schoolhouse with 80 students when the Sisters of the Holy Family came to teach there in 1958.
Sacred Heart School would grow to serve more than 240 students in first through ninth grades, becoming the only parochial school for black students in east St. Tammany.
It was moved down the street to its present location on Bayou Liberty Road and renamed St. Linus. It closed in 1968 after desegregation.
Recently, students, parents, teachers and supporters of the school reunited to dedicate and rename the complex the Mother Henriette Delille Religious Education and Catholic Social Teaching Center.
The dedication follows the 175th anniversary of the founding of the Sisters of the Holy Family by Delille, a free woman of color in New Orleans. The cause for her sainthood was opened in 1988, and she was declared to be Venerable by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.
The classrooms on Bayou Liberty Road are used by St. Genevieve Catholic Church for religious education and to house the church’s various ministries.
Reggie Seymour, a deacon at St. Genevieve, said the dedication was important now “because so many of the teachers and former students are still here.” He said the new name reflects the mission of the Sisters of the Holy Family, which is to evangelize, educate and spread the church’s social teachings.
“We wanted to do something before the history was gone with them,” he said. “We wanted to do it while everybody could share in it.”
The Rev. Roel Lungay, pastor of St. Genevieve, conducted the dedication ceremony and offered prayers for the sisters and all those who had passed through its halls. He called the dedication a reminder of the “beautiful history and exceptional work of the Sisters of the Holy Family.”
Seven of the sisters attended, including Sister Laurita Oliver and Sister Marian Perpetua, who both taught at the school. The families of deceased lay teachers Pauline Dumas, Laverne Phillips and Juliet Smith were guests of honor.
Former teachers Mary Francis Alfred, Barbara Faciane and Ruby Torregano spoke at the event. Many of the lay teachers went on to teach in St. Tammany public schools and credited the sisters with giving them their start in education.
“The Sisters of the Holy Family and the bayou people, that’s what I call you, started my career," Alfred said.
Sheryl Jackson officiated at the dedication and told the crowd, “The sisters, upon their arrival to Bayou Liberty, made a huge, positive change to the people of color in our community, and that is why I am so excited about this special recognition we are celebrating today.”
Jackson’s mother, Laura Narcisse, was baptized and married in the old Sacred Heart Church. All nine of Narcisse’s children attended Sacred Heart School and were present at the dedication.
Narcisse remembers when Father Joseph Bordenave would come from Sacred Heart Church in Lacombe to celebrate one Mass on Sundays. The Benedictine monks from St. Joseph Abbey also served there, then the Divine Word Missionary priests from Bay St. Louis, and later, those from Our Lady of Lourdes in Slidell.
“Our church was like a mission,” she said. But there was “a unity, we all helped. It was a black church, then we moved in with St. Genevieve” when it was closed.
Remnants from her childhood church are still visible in the new church, rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina. The wooden baptismal font in St. Genevieve is from the original Sacred Heart Church, she said, and the crucifix incorporates wood from the crucifix that hung at Sacred Heart.
Vivian Ordone helped coordinate the program and dedication, and organized a display of old photos from the school. She attended school there from first through eighth grades.
“They gave us inspiration,” she said of the Sisters of the Holy Family. “They helped us to follow our dreams.”
Sacred Heart Church was originally on Mainegra Road, and lay teachers staffed grades one through four in the school building next to it.
“I started in first grade when the nuns came,” she said.
As more families sent their children, the school was moved to its present location on land donated by Albert Roberts, one of the parishioners, she said. Two new school buildings were built to make eight classrooms. The former school building became the cafeteria.
Memories were shared of the social events and dances at the cafeteria, organized by Adrian Doucette, president of the Parent Teacher Association. He attended the dedication and was acknowledged as someone in the community who did everything he could to keep the school going.
Ordone said she met her husband of 44 years at one of those dances. Her sibling, Sister Maria Gonzales, also attended school at Sacred Heart, and went on to board at St. Mary’s Academy, which was founded by the sisters in New Orleans. She later joined the order.
Sister Maria said, “I remember how the sisters were so hard working, they were so dedicated."
In addition to an academic and spiritual education, she said, they also taught social skills, including forming a band that took students to New Orleans for several years to perform at the Creole Fiesta, to the convent for the annual Holy Family Days, and to Covington for the St. Tammany Parish Fair.
Former student Edwin Cousin said, "Some of the good things I remember, is when we’d walk down the street to church in May. The girls carried flowers, the boys carried candles, and we’d sing from here to the church." He talked about the maypole dances at the annual May Day event.
Another former student, Noreen Deblanc, also fondly remembered May Day. Some hope that the dedication and renewed interest in the history of Sacred Heart Parish will be a catalyst to bring it back as an annual celebration.
Sister Sylvia Thibodeau talked about the school's legacy.
"The values and all the things that you learned from the years that the sisters were present here, you pass that on to the next generation. We are very few sisters, we don’t know what God’s plans are for us, but what we do know is you will carry on the legacy of Mother Henriette Delille and your children will.”
The Sisters of the Holy Family have served in schools, nursing homes, prisons and provide for the elderly in the United States, Belize, Central America and Nigeria. For information, visit www.sistersoftheholyfamily.com.