Resurrection School scrambles after arson

Click here for photos of the fire at Resurrection of Our Lord School and the school’s recovery plans.

A pre-dawn fire that extensively damaged Resurrection of Our Lord School in New Orleans on Feb. 14 was the work of arsonists, but principal Dr. Si Nguyen said his students and faculty have been buoyed by the support they have received from the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Schools and other schools.

“There’s just been an outpouring of prayers and support,” Nguyen said Feb. 17 before a school Mass in the cafeteria of the former St. Paul the Apostle School in Gentilly, the temporary home for Resurrection School while repairs are being made. “It shows that we are truly a family in the archdiocese.”

While plans are subject to change, Nguyen said he hoped to have the pre-kindergarten students back at the Resurrection campus on Feb. 27 in a wing of the building that had accelerant damage but no fire. That wing, called Our Lady’s Hall, houses the school’s computer lab, library and several lower-grade classrooms.

“They believe we’ll be able to occupy that building, although the floors may not be ready,” Nguyen said. “But we will be able to operate.”

Students in older grades probably will remain at St. Paul the Apostle until St. Joseph’s Hall, which was heavily damaged by the fire, is renovated. That might take another month, Nguyen said.

“I’ve been told by both the (archdiocesan) building office and the insurance office that probably within a  month, the whole facility will be available,” Nguyen said. “We’re getting food service on line (at St. Paul the Apostle) to be able to provide hot lunches for the kids.”

Offices extensively damaged

Nguyen said the school office, just inside the front doors of St. Joseph’s Hall, was extensively damaged by the fire. Greg Davis, public information officer for the New Orleans Fire Department, said the fire was definitely set, citing “multiple points of origin” inside the building. Investigators were trying to determine if there was a sign of forced entry, Davis said.

“We definitely know it’s arson,” Davis said. “That’s not an accidental fire. It’s burned in different locations.”

No one was injured in the fire, which first was reported at 6:24 a.m. and was extinguished by the New Orleans Fire Department at 6:55 a.m.

Nguyen said all desks will be replaced inside St. Joseph’s Hall.

“The classrooms seem to be OK, but for the safety of the kids going forward, the contents have been removed and the entire building is going to be cleaned to make sure everything is OK. That’s why the floors are coming up.”

 In addition to 41 NOFD firefighting personnel who responded to the call, arson experts with the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshal combed through the damage searching for clues.

St. Paul the Apostle welcomes

Nguyen and Dr. Jan Lancaster, superintendent of Catholic Schools, scrambled to find a location that would allow the school to provide daycare services for its students for the rest of the week before the Mardi Gras break.

Resurrection already had scheduled to take the entire Mardi Gras week off (Feb. 20-24).

“We’re trying to make sure that we will be able to meet the needs of our parents,” Nguyen said, standing outside the school. “We have a lot of working parents, and we realize it’s going to be difficult because they don’t have daycare for the next three days. That’s our No. 1 goal right now. At the same time, we’re looking further into the future. With God’s help and God’s blessing, Resurrection will come back.”

Asked if he could fathom what would cause someone to set fire to the school, Nguyen shook his head.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I really am speechless when it comes to this, because we’re just a typical Catholic school. We service the kids that come to us, and the parents. I’m lost for words, in all honesty.”

The school received two anonymous letters before Christmas with the cryptic threat: “You will pay.” That prompted the school to beef up security for several weeks when the students returned to school after New Year’s, but nothing happened.

Yet another obstacle

Nguyen said the flooding the school experienced in Hurricane Katrina was an extremely difficult blow, but the school survived, reopening in August 2006 with 300 students. The enrollment has grown consistently since then, reaching 460 students this year.

While the future of the school was in doubt after Katrina, Nguyen and faculty members came in and cleaned up the damage and the school ultimately reopened. In the case of the fire, Nguyen said, “it’s just an emotional drain.”

“To put this into perspective, the damage is not as extensive, but it’s still the same in that we have to recover from it – and we will,” Nguyen said. “I believe that with God’s help, we will.”

For more information on how you can help Resurrection School, call 242-8669.

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

 

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