For five straight hours on Nov. 8, the gymnasium at Visitation of Our Lady School in Marrero will be transformed into an extraordinary living museum called “A Day with the Saints,” courtesy of the eighth-grade class.
The eighth graders, each costumed as a Catholic saint, will stand frozen in time like wax figures, only springing to life when visited by students from the lower grades. During their period of animation, the costumed saints will offer a brief summary of their lives and good works, and encourage the young visitors to ask questions.
“I have a heavy emphasis on the lives of the saints in my classroom because the kids need others to look up to besides what they have in popular culture,” said museum coordinator Carla Sumner, Visitation of Our Lady’s seventh- and eighth-grade religion teacher. “So every week we’re reinforcing the lives of the saints as we follow the liturgical calendar.”
The school’s reverent museum of saints, staged at Visitation of Our Lady for the past five years, ironically was inspired by a secular movie – “Night at the Museum.”
“In that movie the exhibits at the museum come to life at night. The kids thought that was so wonderful!” Sumner said. “It just came to me that it would be a nice way to celebrate All Saints’ Day; we could have our Catholic saints come alive for the school.”
Sumner chooses a theme for each annual museum before offering her students a list of saints from which to choose. This year’s gallery of 14 saints will focus on holy men and women who have some connection to New Orleans, including St. Katharine Drexel, founder of Xavier University and the Uptown high school that bears her name; Blessed Pope John Paul II, the most internationally beloved person to visit New Orleans in modern times; and St. Angela Merici, founder of the Ursuline Sisters, whose ministry has educated New Orleans girls since 1727.
Other saints in the 2013 museum are enshrined in the city’s street names, including Sts. Ann, Philip, Roch and Bernard. Pere Antoine, the beloved former pastor of St. Louis Cathedral and the namesake of the famous alleyway, will be a “floater,” greeting museum visitors during opening hours.
Sumner said many of her former students return to campus to visit the museum, and some have even adopted the saint they once portrayed as their confirmation saint.
Younger students who go though the museum for the first time initially are a bit nervous about the event, she said.
“Some of them think it is a haunted house,” Sumner chuckled. “They warm up to it as they go from eighth grader to eighth grader to ask questions. The eighth graders have done so much research that they really do know a lot about their saint; they’re able to stay in character,” she said, adding that her students also complete a PowerPoint slide show on their saint and paint scenery to use as backdrops.
Sumner said her professional and her spiritual life has been enriched by the project. The teacher recalled how one former student, portraying St. Padre Pio, went as far as to spray his hands with rose-scented perfume to suggest the real-life scent of the saint’s hands. Another student, playing Archbishop Fulton Sheen, studied hours of the priest’s televised appearances to adopt his voice and mannerisms.
One of Sumner’s sweetest memories is when she watched a student who had great musical ability – but was too shy to show it – blossom when he played St. Gabriel the Archangel.
“He brought a real trumpet to school and played a little bit!” said Sumner, noting that the student now plays guitar in Visitation of Our Lady’s weekly youth Mass.
“I’d like to think (the Saints Museum) was a little bit of an icebreaker,” she said. “The kids will say, ‘You know, I think this saint picked me,’ because when they do the research, they discover that they have the same temperament or some of the same challenges.”