Duchesne House seeks to connect community
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, religious communities that have served in the Archdiocese of New Orleans for centuries discerned how in light of their individual missions they might best facilitate the rebuilding of devastated neighborhoods.
In the fall of 2007, four Religious Sisters of the Sacred Heart – the community that has operated the Academy of the Sacred Heart since 1887 – decided to take up residence in the former St. Rose of Lima Church rectory on Bayou Road.
That former rectory has been renamed Duchesne House in honor of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, who founded the first house of the Religious Sisters of the Sacred Heart in the U.S. in the 1818.
A welcoming dorm
The rectory has become both a welcoming center and makeshift dormitory for groups composed mostly of college students who sign up to spend a week or more in rebuilding projects.
In addition to hosting about 20 groups a year, the sisters also have established a program that helps the students reflect spiritually on their work and engage in one-on-one conversations with neighbors who lost family, friends, homes and jobs because of Katrina and then endured the painfully slow response in recovery.
The group of 11 students and three faculty members from the University of San Diego that descended on Duchesne House last month actually had spent an entire semester preparing for their service trip by studying how best to immerse themselves in the local community. This was the third trip to New Orleans by the San Diego students.
Listen to the neighbors
“We tend to approach it by being more immersed in the community,” said Dr. Christopher Nayve, director of the Center for Community Service-Learning at the University of San Diego. “We don’t like to come into a community and say, ‘Here’s what we do and here’s what we can fix.’ The idea is really to be present and listen.”
After discussions with the sisters, neighbors and small business owners, the group decided to help the Community Book Center at 2523 Bayou Road – the one-time home of Sportco sporting goods store – by sprucing up its exterior with murals and a large sign that sports an oversized boa boa tree, representative of the tree of knowledge.
“It represents the elders sitting at the foot of the tree and transmitting their oral history,” said Vera Warren-Williams, who runs the Community Book Center with Jennifer “Mama Jen” Turner, a co-manager and expert storyteller.
“This is more than just a bookstore,” Nayve said. “This is the hub of the neighborhood.”
Warren-Williams started the book center in 1983 in her parents’ home in the Lower 9th Ward, and she sees hope for children and adults through the power of books and education. Most of the collections are by and about people of African descent. The books, paintings and fabrics are all “real,” Warren-Williams said.
“We don’t have e-books,” she said. “You have to physically pull a book off the shelf.”
Without flood insurance, the book center took a deep hit from Katrina’s floodwaters. Warren-Williams teamed up with several other small business owners to get their properties back into commerce, benefitting from volunteer efforts.
Maria Silva, a 22-year-old sociology major, said she and her fellow classmates took classes on New Orleans history and discussed the social structures surrounding poverty, racism and classism. In addition to painting the murals at the bookstore, the students visited a homeowner in the Lower 9th Ward who lost his grandmother and granddaughter in the flooding.
“Hearing those stories was heartbreaking,” Silva said. “We all saw this on the news, but he was there.”
Religious of the Sacred Heart Sister Mary Pat White, who helped establish Duchesne House, said “the wonderfully mixed neighborhood” could have gone either way after Katrina, but she has seen signs of success and rebirth.
“We’ve opened up our hearts and home to the kids who come here,” Sister White said. “We wanted a place that wasn’t just a roof over their heads. The kids bring a wonderful energy. You get to the point where you are receiving more than you are giving. We wanted to move from service learning into leadership. I think that’s the biggest impact on the students themselves, seeing the transformation.”
Among the key lessons students have learned from interacting with their mostly African-American neighbors is how they have “pulled themselves back up, moved on and have this tremendous personal faith and belief in Jesus as their friend and companion,” Sister White said.
During the evening reflection time, Sister White sometimes sees the “Kodak moment” when a student understands why he or she was sent on the mission trip.
“I call that the God moment,” Sister White said.
During a candlelight prayer service on the first night of a service trip, a student from Creighton University was asked what he hoped he would bring back from his experience.
“What I’m going to do is bring my family back here,” he told Sister White.
The next summer, the student showed up in New Orleans with his parents, his sister and his fiancé.
“This means a lot to us,” Warren-Williams said. “We appreciate ourselves better as a result of other people. Sometimes, you don’t realize the treasures you have. This was a bustling corridor of commerce. We want to restore it to that and even make it better.”