St. Joan of Arc, LaPlace: 50 years of ‘family’ ties

Larry Bourgeois Jr. likes to share an anecdote about Msgr. Dennis “Pete” Bergeron, St. Joan of Arc’s late pastor, that perfectly sums up the spirit at his parish’s 50-year-old elementary school.

Whenever anyone, even a stranger, would knock on the rectory door looking for help, Bourgeois said Father Pete would invite the person inside to eat with him.

“Father Pete never met a stranger. Everybody he met became a friend,” said Bourgeois of the priest, who shepherded St. Joan of Arc Parish from 1962 until his death in 1989.

When parishioners worried that Father Pete’s compassionate acts might put his safety at risk, he would gently remind them that those looking for help might just be “angels in disguise,” and to worry not.

“His attitude of generosity, his attitude of hospitality, his love for food has stayed with us in our culture here,” said Bourgeois, who came to St. Joan of Arc as a teacher 32 years ago and has served as its principal since 1999.

“The same is true today – it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between the parish and the school,” said Bourgeois, pointing to holiday basket drives, weekly school Masses, and the parish fair, whose proceeds are always appropriated to a pressing need of the school.

Dominican roots

Opened in September 1961 as the first Catholic school in LaPlace, St. Joan of Arc initially served 136 students in four grades under the leadership of Father Edward Boudreaux, pastor; Dominican Sister Mary Edmund Gibson, founding principal; another Dominican sister; and two lay teachers.

The original St. Joan of Arc Church, built in the 1940s as a mission of St. Peter Parish in Reserve, was located a mile away from the school, compelling students to celebrate Mass outdoors or in the cafeteria until the present church was built on its 18-acre campus in 1981.

“When I first came to St. Joan of Arc, my dream was to teach college-level history,” said Bourgeois, who planned only to stay long enough to earn money for graduate school. “But I fell in love with the kids and the school community, and never wanted to leave,” he said, noting that 13 members of his school’s current faculty are St. Joan of Arc alumnae.

Proud provider of special ed

With a motto of “The Pursuit of Excellence through Christ,” St. Joan of Arc currently serves 550 students beginning in pre-K3, including a robust eighth grade of 51 students. In 2006, the school became the first elementary school in St. John civil parish to be accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).

Since the mid 1970s, St. Joan of Arc has been the only private school in the River Parishes to offer special education – a program offering small-group learning in English, reading and math established by late Dominican Sister Mary Germaine Roussel, school principal from 1972-99. The school also has an extensive “504” accommodation program for students who don’t qualify for special ed, but who need extra help in the classroom.

“Sister Mary Germaine wanted ‘Catholic’ to be universal – she didn’t like the idea that many Catholic schools would not accommodate those children with special needs,” Bourgeois said, adding that his school remains undaunted by the “huge financial commitment” required to keep the program top-notch.

By sixth grade, students are placed on one of three tracks: an accelerated “honors” track; the “grade-level” track; or “resource.”

“Students all come back andsay how well-prepared they were here, and we get lots of kudos from the different high schools,” Bourgeois said.

Another campus standout is the band program, begun by Bourgeois and late band instructor James Assenheimer. Currently overseen by J.R. Miller, the band is 160 students strong and performs at venues including St. Charles Catholic High football games, the Alamo, Disneyworld and numerous  festivals and contests.

“I don’t think you’ll find too many elementary schools with a full band program,” Bourgeois said, explaining that all students get a full year of “pre-band” in third grade and then have the option to enroll in band as a daily class. There is a beginning band of fourth and fifth graders; an advanced band of sixth, seventh and eighth graders; and a jazz band of musicians who put in extra rehearsal time.

Using technology to create

The school’s technology program has grown by leaps and bounds since the first computer classes were offered in 1995, with nearly every classroom equipped with interactive Promethean boards. Marcie Hebert, technology coordinator and an SJA alumna, lauds the faculty’s ever-positive attitude toward learning the new technologies.

“We’re constantly working to upgrade,” Hebert said, noting that last year, one of the kindergarten classes received a federal grant that equipped it with an iPad, four iPod touches and a digital camera. “We podcasted with the kindergartners, said Hebert, who said the curriculum was so successful, the technology was matched in all three kindergarten classrooms.

Recently, an anonymous donor made possible the purchase of 20 iPad 2s for the fifth grade, Hebert adds.

“A lot has been made of the iPad only being a consumption device, but there are a lot of ways to create, and I think we need to give that ability to kids as much as we can,” said Hebert, who is currently working with her eighth graders to script and produce their own commercials with the aid of flip cameras. “They’re getting to see how to take these things we use for everyday fun and use them in a functional, practical way,” she said.

Christ-centered campus

Although the last Dominican nun left in 2004, Italian-born Daughter of Divine Providence Sister Pier Carla Barone, the school’s coordinator of religious education, has resided at the campus’ former Dominican convent since losing her home at St. Mark in Chalmette.

Rotating grades attend weekly confession, monthly adoration, and have key roles in living Nativities, rosaries and Stations of the Cross – the latter presented at St. Joan of Arc and at St. Hubert Church in Garyville.

Every class and club adopts a yearlong service project, with recipients including Relay for Life and Ronald McDonald House. Last fall, eighth graders prayed a sidewalk rosary at the abortion clinic next to the Women’s New Life Center, then visited the center, the recipient of their prayers and fund-raising.

Overseeing it all are the school’s dedicated faculty, many with tenures of 20, 30 and even 40 years.

“No matter what your technology is or what your facility is,” Bourgeois said, “if you do not have caring teachers, you have nothing.”

Beth Donze can be reached at bdonze@clarionherald.org.

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