After months of work, demolition crews departed 4000 St. Gerard Ave. last week, leaving little behind but open fields.
“It’s so strange to be here and see nothing,” said Brian Moscona, surveying the largely empty landscape on Thursday.
It won’t stay that way. This week, Cristo Rey Baton Rouge Franciscan High School plans to begin installing seven large modular buildings at the site. The timetable is less than month, as Cristo Rey is seeking to finish everything in time for the Aug. 7 start of school.
Moscona, who grew up in Baton Rouge and attended Catholic High School, serves as Cristo Rey’s president.
Cristo Rey Baton Rouge Franciscan High School opened its doors to the inaugural class on Aug. 5.
“All of our effort, and it’s taken all of us, has been getting this campus ready for our students,” Moscona said.
Cristo Rey has been here before. A network of 32 Catholic high schools in 21 states, Cristo Rey held a ribbon-cutting ceremony on these grounds nearly a year ago when it opened its Baton Rouge school. The Chicago-based group led by the Jesuit order has earned national recognition for its uncommon educational approach, namely having its students work off campus at a white-collar job at least one full day each week.
Cristo Rey’s first home was the former Redemptorist High School, a once flourishing north Baton Rouge institution. A lone blue ribbon from Cristo Rey’s grand opening ceremony is still wrapped around a blooming crape myrtle, one of the few things left by the demolition company.
Exactly a week after that ceremony, on Aug. 12, 2016, floodwaters began to pour over St. Gerard Avenue, filling the old Redemptorist campus with four feet of water.
Like so many who were flooded last August, Cristo Rey’s faculty and students had to relocate, spending the 2016-17 school year in unoccupied space owned by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation at the Bon Carre Technology Center, two miles south on Florida Boulevard.
Moscona said he’s grateful for the foundation’s generosity in letting Cristo Rey operate at Bon Carre, but he is happy to be leaving.
“It wasn’t an ideal space for a school, and it was far away from where our kids were coming from,” he said.
The Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge on Wednesday reached an agreement to tear down the flood…
The Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge soon concluded that the flood-damaged, 95,000-square-foot facility was not worth salvaging. The diocese agreed to demolish the buildings, which were constructed in the early 1960s, and donate the nearly 18 acres of land to Cristo Rey for it to build its own campus.
On Friday morning, Joe Ingraham, the diocese’s chief financial officer, came out to St. Gerard Avenue to inspect the completed demolition.
“The contractor left a lot of trees. It looks a small park out there,” said Ingraham. “We’ve left a blank canvas waiting for Cristo Rey.”
Clearing that canvas took much longer than anticipated. Ingraham said work began last November, but went slowly because of asbestos that had to be removed from the old Redemptorist campus before the buildings could be torn down.
Negotiations with FEMA also went slowly. The diocese has delayed donating the property until after the federal agency has paid all it’s going to pay out, a process which will take years. After months of talks, FEMA recently agreed to put up $2.7 million to fund the bulk of the cost of installing the new temporary campus. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also has offered $500,000 to help with the school’s reconstruction.
Moscona said the agreement was not signed until June 15, leaving little time to get the new campus ready. As the talks dragged on, Moscona said, he looked at a variety of alternative locations for school this year in case the FEMA agreement was reached too late.
The delays also made it difficult for Cristo Rey to recruit students for the 2017-18 school year. He said he expects to have at least 125 students this fall, all in either ninth or 10th grades. Eventually, he hopes to grow enrollment to 400 to 450 students.
“I think it was very hard to commit when (students) didn’t know where we were going to be located,” Moscona said.
Dealing with FEMA has dominated his work with Cristo Rey since he took over in early February.
“It has really allowed me to empathize personally with what’s everyone going through with their homes," Moscona said.
Moscona has not been long with Cristo Rey. Formerly principal at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic School in Baton Rouge, Moscona started in February. He replaced founding president Jim Llorens, who abruptly left in October citing unspecified “family and personal interests;" Llorens in April became interim chief administrative officer for the incoming administration of Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome.
The former principal of Our Lady of Mercy Catholic elementary school on Monday was named the…
Moscona has replaced key staff and hired several new faculty members, including Claire Willis, who started July 1 as academic principal. Previously, Willis spent years as academic assistant principal at Moscona’s former school, Our Lady of Mercy.
The school’s faculty are spending this coming week at a weeklong training session in Chicago put on by the Cristo Rey network.
Meanwhile, Texas-based Satellite Co., the general contractor, will be busy getting the old Redemptorist property ready for the arrival of temporary buildings. The site plans show that all seven will be on the south side of St. Gerard Avenue. Two will hold 20 classrooms. The other buildings will hold a library, band room, “cafetorium,” multipurpose building and the main office. In a nod to the past, Cristo Rey is retaining a patch of trees that used to form a front courtyard for Redemptorist High.
The plan, however, is to build a permanent campus across the street. Cristo Rey, however, has yet to hire an architect to start designs on that building. Moscona said it will be much smaller than the old Redemptorist High, which held more than 1,000 students at its peak. And the new school’s scope hinges on how discussions go with FEMA.
“I’d say it’s largely dependent on how much they’re going to pay us,” Moscona said.
The new school, however, will not neglect the past. The old football field is still usable, and the press box still says “Home of the Fighting Redemptorist Wolves.” Moscona said he’s considering building a memorial on the new campus honoring the history of Redemptorist.
After months of waiting, Moscona said he’s glad Cristo Rey will finally have a home again, but it hasn’t been easy getting to this point.
“It’s rough,” he said. “We’re doing our best to overcome it, but it’s been a challenge.”