Baton Rouge’s soon-to-come Cristo Rey High School has found its new home at Redemptorist High School in north Baton Rouge, which the Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge closed at the end of the 2015 school year.
Cristo Rey leaders have spent more than a year trying to determine how to bring the unique Catholic high school to the city. They announced Wednesday they would lease the Redemptorist site after plans fell apart to house the high school downtown, though some Redemptorist alumni speculated that Cristo Rey planned to move to Redemptorist all along.
Cristo Rey will now begin recruiting students and teachers in hopes of opening in fall 2016 with 125 students. The network of Cristo Rey schools across the country combines college preparatory and faith-based education with workforce skills, as the students work for area businesses that help pay for the cost of school.
Cristo Rey Baton Rouge’s President James Llorens said 40 corporate sponsors have already committed to hiring students for the 2016-2017 school year. They include Lamar Advertising, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Louisiana and All Star Automotive.
The No. 1 requirement for students applying to attend Cristo Rey is that they are low or lower middle income, Llorens said. He said they expect that students may be grade level or two below where they are supposed to be, but they need to show willingness to work hard.
“The curriculum is designed to address the performance,” Llorens said. “By the time they finish the 12th grade we expect they’ll be able to go to a four-year institution.”
He said the school also wants to see that parents and families are willing to get involved in their child’s education.
Baton Rouge’s Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady will partner with the school to infuse Catholic religious faith into the overall curriculum, Llorens said.
“We, the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady, have been serving the people of Louisiana since 1911, when our Sisters first arrived in Pineville in Central Louisiana,” read a statement from Baton Rouge’s local order. “ … Our Mission calls us to respond to the spirit of God in our lives, by reaching out in compassionate service to every person especially those most in need and to work to make a significant difference in the world.”
Llorens said he expects to celebrate daily Mass at Redemptorist’s chapel and hopes to work with the Diocese to use the next-door St. Gerard Majella Catholic Church for larger Masses.
Redemptorist High School often held school-wide Masses at St. Gerard and also used the church for its graduation ceremony.
Bishop Robert Muench’s announcement earlier this year that low enrollment was forcing the diocese to close the 65-year-old school led to a backlash by supporters who fought unsuccessfully to save it.
The backlash flared up again on Wednesday, as many Redemptorist supporters had speculated months ago that Cristo Rey would move into the Redemptorist site, which Diocese officials said had not been decided at the time.
Both Diocese and the Cristo Rey leaders rebutted claims again Wednesday that Cristo Rey had been planning to move into Redemptorist’s property.
Llorens wrote in a late July letter to the Diocese that the Redemptorist site was not Cristo Rey’s first choice and that it presented multiple problems, including being far away from many of the job sites for students. He said he preferred a location downtown, while Redemptorist is about 5 miles from downtown.
Llorens said the Cristo Rey leaders reached final negotiations to use the Baton Rouge Bank building on North Boulevard but the high cost of leasing the building caused the Cristo Rey board to reconsider. The board then recommended that Cristo Rey look at the Redemptorist site, which they started doing in July.
“The cost of Cristo Rey Baton Rouge would be significantly lower and the site offered a facility built as a high school, reducing the need for extensive renovations,” Llorens wrote. “Additionally, the site provides a closer physical connection to the potential student population we are designed to serve.”
The Diocese released a statement saying “the facts of the matter” showed that Redemptorist closed because of its shrinking enrollment levels that led to losing too much money.
The Diocese said the only other interest they received in the property came from elementary charter schools. They would not allow those to lease the property because Redemptorist/St. Gerard Elementary is still open in the same area.
“We were surprised, but upon receiving a detailed letter on July 20, 2015 from Dr. Jim Llorens that described the extensive site selection process, the reason became clear: Cristo Rey simply could not find a suitable alternative,” the Diocese wrote about why Cristo Rey chose the Redemptorist site after previously telling the Diocese it would look elsewhere. “...Cristo Rey therefore represents our best choice at this time for productive use of the property.”
The school’s lease asked for $28,853 a month.
The statements did nothing to quell the anger of Redemptorist supporters, who said they believe the Diocese lied to them from the beginning.
“In December when we met in the school library, we were told to our faces by the Superintendent of Catholic schools that Cristo Rey was not an option,” said former Redemptorist Alumni Board President Lawrence Robillard. “For this to happen now was kind of a slap in the face that we were being lied to the whole time.”
Julian Bourgeois was one of many alumni and parents who drafted a proposal to keep Redemptorist open. The Diocese rejected their proposal in the spring.
“We fought as hard as anybody could fight,” Bourgeois said. “But there was never a chance to win that battle.”
Still, Robillard and Bourgeois agreed that a silver lining was getting to see their beloved high school passed on to another generation of students, regardless of what the school is named.
“Those buildings and the heritage and the spirit of Redemptorist, no matter what school is going to be there, there’s going to be that good aura,” Robillard said.