It was two years after Katrina, and outside the Dauphine Street gate of Cathedral Academy in the French Quarter, Rhonda Wheeler was praying with her young daughter and son.
She didn’t give their prayer much of a shot.
For most of the previous year, Wheeler had traveled around the country, leaving her children temporarily with no formal education. Zoe, then 8, was a bright girl, but her random home-schooling had left her academically far behind kids her age.
“She could barely read,” Wheeler said, recalling the desperation she was feeling as a mother.
Wheeler had knocked on just about every school door looking for a spot for her children, and now she was at Cathedral Academy, run by the Nashville-based Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia.
Knocking on doors
“We had just moved here, and I was trying to find a school that would take the kids, knowing they were behind,” Wheeler recalled. “I didn’t drive. No one would take them. I remember it like it was yesterday. We were by the front door, and before we went in, I told the kids, ‘Let’s just pray.’ We stood outside the front door and we prayed they would take them.”
When Wheeler told her story to Sister Bernadette Mathiesson, she could sense, for the first time, someone actually was listening. “I didn’t expect that,” Wheeler said.
But then Sister Bernadette dropped the bombshell. She wanted to separate Zoe and her older brother and give them a written test.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh, no, there’s no way, there’s no way she’s going to take them,’” Wheeler said. “After she was finished, she called me into the office, and I was pretty much defeated at that point. And then she said, ‘We’re going to take them.’ It was just like my heart exploded.”
Imagine Wheeler’s heart, then, when on May 29 in St. Louis Cathedral, her now 14-year-old daughter, Zoe Saputra, the girl who could barely read, gave the valedictorian’s speech for the seventh-grade graduating class of Cathedral Academy, which closed May 31 because of low enrollment after nearly a century of operation (it was founded in 1914).
“If somebody would have told me back then that we would be sitting here this day, there’s no way I could even imagine it,” Wheeler said. “It’s all been amazing, honestly.”
A world of love
In her valedictory speech, Zoe expressed clearly how the Dominican sisters helped transform her life in six years, and not just academically. As a second-grader, Zoe gravitated to Sister Mary George in the library, who “helped me discover the world of books and reading.”
“If not for Sister Mary George, I would not have a passion for reading,” said Zoe, who became enraptured with “The Good Thief,” whose main character is an orphan making his way deftly through a world of hard knocks. “But the best privilege of all was being a part of Cathedral Academy.”
There was something else going on inside the sisters’ school besides reading, math, history and art.
“While the teachers and the sisters taught math and history, they also taught us something unforgettable – to be a saint,” Zoe said. “They have helped us grow closer to God and to be generous to others. If we follow these sacred teachings, we can be what God created us to be – saints.”
Zoe said she wasn’t fearful when she first entered Cathedral Academy, even though she was behind, but she really hit her stride in fifth grade – the beginning of middle school. “I realized then that, yeah, I think I know what I’m doing now,” Zoe said.
All of a sudden, classmates were flocking to her, asking for her help in solving problems. The struggling reader had become a tutor.
“I don’t know how it felt,” Zoe said, trying to recall her feelings. “We’ve just got to help each other, I guess.”
As far back as second grade, when she saw some classmates making their first Communion, Zoe yearned to become Catholic herself. That desire culminated in 2011, in the sisters’ convent chapel, where Oblate Father Tony Rigoli baptized her.
Sisters guided her
“The main reason I wanted to become Catholic was just so I could be closer to God, because when I was little, it was such an amazing thing and I wanted to become a part of it,” Zoe said. “I just prayed a lot and tried to become closer to God. I tried to let him guide me to what choices I had to make, because that’s something we have to do all the time. He helped me make good choices rather than bad ones.”
As for her next steps, through the help of school volunteer Yvette Endom’s PLEASE (People Leading Educational and Spiritual Excellence) Foundation, Zoe will attend Cabrini High School to continue her Catholic education. For the last four years, the foundation has helped place every Cathedral Academy graduate in a Catholic high school.
Why did Zoe select Cabrini High, founded by a local saint?
“Right when I walked in, it just felt homey,” Zoe said. “I said, ‘This is it.’”
With all that her daughter has accomplished in the last six years, Wheeler says she is most amazed by her kind demeanor toward others, her generous spirit and her maturity.
“She’s grown so much, and she amazes me every day, really,” Wheeler said. “From her study habits to everything about her. She’s very mature and responsible for her age. My nickname for her is ‘Grandma.’
“I don’t know if this is the right word, but I think the sisters taught her piety. She’s very modest and she takes after the sisters a lot. She’s definitely not showy. She went in this little shy girl who just kept her nose in books all the time and kept drawing, and now she’s really coming out of her shell.”
Dominican Sister Mary Sheila Maksim, Cathedral Academy’s last principal, said she sees God’s hand in life-changing stories such as Zoe’s.
“I feel like I’ve really grown closer to God,” Sister Mary Sheila said. “I love teaching the children that they are called to be saints. That’s really the focus of a Catholic education.”
There are other Zoes, Sister Mary Sheila said. A 5-year-old student grabbed her one day in the hallway and asked her, “Sister, will you come and pray with me?”
Then they walked into the school chapel, and the prayer lesson began, right out of Isaiah 11:6, “with a little child to guide them.”
“She was the one who led me in prayer,” Sister Mary Sheila said. “We went up to a miniature altar and she prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, I give my heart to you. I give you my whole life. Please bless us.’ Our children are not afraid to talk about God. It’s genuine.”
Sister Mary Sheila said while there is sadness in the school’s closing, “I keep telling people the Lord will bring good out of everything. We all know he loves these children even more than we do, and he has a plan for them. We need to be grateful because the Lord Jesus loves this school, and he has worked miracles here every day. I’ve seen it. We need to remember those and be so grateful for being a witness to all those miracles.”
Look no further than Zoe Saputra, Cathedral Academy Class of 2013.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.