GRAND COTEAU — This small St. Landry Parish town was an unlikely center of faith and learning, but two centuries ago, a few women made it so.
They included Mrs. Charles Smith of Opelousas, a wealthy planter’s widow, whose donation of 50 acres, a single building and travel expenses for two sisters of the Religious of the Sacred Heart from St. Charles, Missouri, provided the start for what would become a convent and girl’s school.
That was 200 years ago: Before the miracle, before the arrival of the Jesuits to Grand Coteau, before the oaks were planted. Absent the efforts of these women, would Grand Coteau, the village formerly known as Buzzard Prairie, have remained what it once was, a traveler’s stop?
It’s a moot point: Mother Eugénie Audé and Sister Mary Layton opened the school on Oct. 5, 1821, on the grounds and in the building that Smith provided, with a handful of students, guided by five goals of Sacred Heart schooling. These are faith in God, respect for intellectual values, social awareness that generates action, building of Christian community and personal growth in an atmosphere of wise freedom. The academy still stands in what its proponents say is a “constant and ever-changing world of Sacred Heart.”
That’s what the Academy of the Sacred Heart will celebrate starting Tuesday at a 9 a.m. Mass at St. Landry Catholic Church in Opelousas, which might have been roomy enough to seat more than the 1,800 living alumnae, were it not for social distancing mandated by COVID-19 restrictions. Gov. John Bel Edwards may be among those present. That celebration will continue with a host of events over the coming year: release of a published history, planned religious feast days, service efforts and a bicentennial concert and cocktail party, among them.
Yvonne Sandoz Adler, Ph.D., serving her sixth year as head of school, traces her own ties to this academy to her mother, a 1949 graduate of the teacher’s college that the sisters once operated on this site. Adler, a veteran educator in St. Charles public schools and former board member at the academy in Grand Coteau, sent her own daughters to the Academy of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, one of two dozen Sacred Heart schools in the United States and one of some 150 allied, "network" schools around the world.
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“The school is transformational,” she said of Grand Coteau. “Your heart is transformed. You are different for having been here. You can pick academy girls out in a crowd: poised, articulate, independent thinkers.”
That’s because the more things change, the more the goals stay the same. Nuns so central to Sacred Heart education have become rarer since the 1960s, but the goals remain. Boys at Berchmans Academy of the Sacred Heart are in Grand Coteau now — the boys school opened in 2006 — but the Academy of the Sacred Heart itself remains a single-gender school.
Lillian Cain, a senior and student council president, said she embraces the traditions of the school: graduation under the oaks, which she will experience this year, family ties, the senior ring. Her grandmother, Carmen Cain, gave Lillian her ring, which she will wear proudly. She has aunts who’ve graduated from the school and cousins who attend there now.
The daughter of Shannon and Kendra Cain, Lillian, 17, said she’s been well prepared for her next educational journey, which she said will be at LSU. She plans on becoming a physician’s assistant.
With Aimee David Cotter, 1999 alumna and director of advancement, that spirit of family and tradition runs deep with every step across the ancient campus, through the storied classrooms and outbuildings and with each prayer offered in the 1850s chapel or at the Shrine of St. John Berchmans, through whom a miracle took place at this school. Her daughter goes to Sacred Heart, her two sons to Berchmans.
The Academy of the Sacred Heart, or ASH, is the second of the 150 schools established through the continuing work started by St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, 1779-1865, foundress of the Society of the Sacred Heart. One of the perks of enrollment at ASH or its sister, network schools is that you can “exchange” for enrollment elsewhere among the Sacred Heart schools, all of which adhere to the Five Goals, Cotter said.
The goals, she said, “are not just things we recite. They are threaded into everything we do.” They provide guidance and foundation for alumnae, as well as for students. The exchanges with other schools enables girls to transfer elsewhere, broadening their appreciation for distant places and unfamiliar cultures, and draw students from other locations to Grand Coteau. This semester, girls are enrolled from China, Brazil and Nigeria. Among ASH’s alumnae is actress and producer Salma Hayek, a native of Mexico.
Cotter said single-gender education has been shown to hold advantages for girls because it encourages self-confidence and can foster leadership skills. That is a strength of ASH. Girls who graduate single-gender schools are more likely to major in science, technology, engineering and math and can be especially determined to complete their undergraduate education.
ASH tuition and fees represent sacrifices by parents and investments in their children's education, Cotter said. At the high school level, they come in around $20,000. Adler said for some parents the tipping point in their enrollment decision is in faith formation and character-building, which are essential to developing the whole student.
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Adler said the faith component is ingrained in Sacred Heart students, who show integrity and character and are trained to become “capable, sensible leaders” — young people who are “different in a wonderful way.”
“The difference is noticeable to teachers who’ve been elsewhere. Students are serious, respectful. The students thank me every day after class,” Adler said.
Darlene Smith, a native Kansan, was a veteran teacher when she applied for work at the academy in 1981. She stayed on faculty for 31 years, teaching seventh- and eighth-grade English and eighth-grade Louisiana history. She called her years at ASH “God’s great professional gift to me.”
She said she and her husband moved to Louisiana when he pursued engineering work in the energy industry; eventually, they settled down and stayed in Lafayette. She had seen ASH before and was intrigued by it — “called” by it. She sent her own daughter to the academy, as well.
Now retired from teaching for 10 years, she said she enjoys seeing her former students gain meaningful employment and rise up in their chosen fields. She said it is still “cool” to see graduates like Cotter and Caroline Richard, ASH’s museum director and also a ’99 graduate, “as adults, contributing to society.”
She has been contributing her time of late working on a history of the campus, “The Academy of the Sacred Heart at Grand Coteau, 200 years and counting,” which is nearing completion but has been slowed in the production phase by COVID. She volunteered to write the book and all profits will go to the school.
She said she treasured the school as an older institution founded by women for women and led by women. The history includes stories about the founders and how ASH grew, major events like the centennial and eras like World War I and II and the teacher’s college that the sisters operated until 1956.
Included are close-ups of the women who guided the academy through difficult years; some of the short biographies were contributed by students. There is a glossary to help readers understand Sacred Heart and even some popular recipes from the nuns.
Especially important is the school’s own uneven past with slavery, something neither the author nor the school chooses to ignore. Even at its founding, Sacred Heart’s leadership used borrowed slave labor and eventually purchased slaves themselves. That’s something Smith addresses in her history.
Cotter said the Society of the Sacred Heart established the Cor Unum Scholarship granting $50,000 a year for 20 years — $1 million in all — to encourage enrollment of African American students at any grade level and to understand the impact of slavery on our culture. The goal, the school said in its annual report of 2019-20, is to build a school community that's rich in diversity and welcoming to all people.
"Investing in diversity and making a Sacred Heart education more accessible is a big priority for us. We are thankful to the Society for the $1 million in scholarships over the next 20 years to make that happen," she said.
Cotter said the school in 2018 hosted a gathering of descendants of those enslaved at the school to discuss the past and how the school should honor those who suffered. The descendants were invited to participate in the anniversary planning and in providing input and guidance in depicting that era in the academy’s history, a project that will be continuing.
Studies and plans are underway for reclaiming what were slave quarters on the campus from 1834 to 1865; the descendants are among those weighing in on how best to accomplish that. A plaque on the building now bears the names of the enslaved people.
Smith’s book also includes history of how the Sacred Heart nuns and others sought to aid in the education of African American children in and around Grand Coteau after the close of the Civil War and well into the 20th century.
Of special interest to the book and central to the campus’ story is the story of "the miracle," St. John Berchmans’ healing of a novice nun, Mary Wilson, that occurred at the academy in 1866. Wilson, by birth a Canadian and reared as a Presbyterian, entered the Catholic Church at 16 and eventually sought holy orders.
In 1866, Wilson arrived in Louisiana as a postulant from Canada after entering the order in St. Louis. In ill health, she traveled first to south Louisiana, then to Grand Coteau to improve her condition. She arrived Sept. 20 and was to receive the Society’s habit a month later. However, her health declined further and she was confined to the infirmary Oct. 19, where she remained for two months, oftentimes close to death.
The nuns and young Mary sought the intercessions of the saints. With no relief in sight, the nuns asked for the aid of Blessed John Berchmans, a Fleming and Jesuit scholastic who lived but 22 years. Scholarly and unassuming, he died in 1621 while studying for the priesthood, but was not beatified until 1865.
His recent beatification had created attention and the nuns implored him to provide their sister some relief from her pain. The last to ask was Mary Wilson, whose prayer was answered with Berchman's appearance at her bedside and his words, "Sister, you will get the desired habit. Be faithful. Have confidence. Fear not." And she declared herself well.
Where Berchman appeared a chapel remains, open to the public by appointment with the school and accessible to ASH students who pass by the shrine daily. Nearby is Le Petit Musée, dedicated to the academy's rich and still unfolding history.
In itself, that history is worth the celebration this year will bring, as students embrace the five goals, pray at the shrine, ponder the impact of slavery, and stand before Mary Wilson's grave. It's a history students will share with nuns who persevered long journeys to America, who sustained themselves and built a school on the prairie.
It's a history students will share with their own ancestors and family members who walked the grounds they walk today. If all goes as planned, they will be different for having been here.