When Sacred Heart of Jesus School opened in 1929, its students were mostly of Italian heritage.
Ninety years later, the school's student body crosses racial and religious boundaries in ways its founders could hardly have imagined. Its graduates say the changes have only made it better.
“It has made the lives of my children so great to be in the environment of so many different backgrounds,” said Maria “Re” DiVincenti, a 1967 graduate whose father, Frank Bologna, coached there and whose daughter and grandchildren were or are at the school. “To me, that is the story of Sacred Heart — that everyone is accepted, everybody knows your name, everybody watches out for everybody. That, to me, is the strength.”
Sacred Heart, which still occupies part of its original building, opened at North and 22nd streets just a year after Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church began one block south. The original, eight-classroom building immediately was filled to capacity with 305 students, so an annex was added the following year.
The sisters of St. Joseph served as the first principal and three of the original teachers, and sisters from the convent remained part of the school’s administration and faculty until recently. The first lay principal, Shelia Barton, came in 2006, and the last religious vocation teacher was at the school until three years ago.
The school grew rapidly and reached a peak in 1956-57 with 950 students, said Mary Lee Eggart, Sacred Heart’s historian.
Kelly Kling, who grew up on Washington Avenue, remembers 31 children on his street attending Sacred Heart.
“We basically invented carpooling,” said Kling, whose wife, Mary Beth, is the second of four generations of her family to attend the school.
However, Baton Rouge experienced significant demographic changes following the 1968 opening of the Interstate 10 bridge over the Mississippi River. Many white families moved farther from downtown, and the industrial plants expanded into areas made more accessible by I-10 and I-12. The population surrounding the school became predominantly black and non-Catholic.
Sacred Heart's enrollment plummeted in the 1980s, so the school had to come up with new ideas, DiVincenti said.
It created before- and after-school programs and marketed itself to those who commute downtown as well as those in its traditional footprint. Some students began attending from across the river.
Sacred Heart also has broadened its appeal to the wider community.
Today, about 35% of the student body is African-American, and the school has a significant number of Protestant and Jewish students, said Principal Cecilia Methvin.
“This school looks more like what the world looks like," said Methvin. "It’s like a microcosm of the community.”
Diversification actually began in the 1970s.
That's when Mark Chenevert started at Sacred Heart, and he said his father told him he was among the first group of black students at the school. Mark Chenevert's wife, Kobi, also graduated from Sacred Heart, and their children go there now.
“I’ve always felt welcome here,” Kobi Chenevert said. “I started off here in kindergarten all the way up to eighth grade, and I enjoyed my school time here. The friends, the teachers, everybody was welcoming. I know when I had kids, I didn’t think to send them anywhere else but here. I knew the diversity here was going to be good for my kids.”
While the school has experienced significant changes, a sense of tradition remains, and not only because of multigenerational families in the student body. More than half the faculty either graduated from Sacred Heart, is married to a graduate or has children at the school. Then, there is Michelle Heine.
A full-time teacher from 1980-2015, Heine retired but came back as a substitute and now as a part-time religion teacher. She taught Mark and Kobi Chenevert decades ago and now teaches their children.
“The thing about Mrs. Heine is when she and I were talking about her coming back … to do this part-time religion, I told her, ‘I really don’t care what you teach. You can teach underwater basket-weaving. I just need your presence and influence on the kids,’” Methvin said. “She understands the middle-school creature, just gets the animal. She’s a tremendous mentor. She’s compassionate, fair. Just having that presence … is just indispensable.”
And, like the school, enduring.