Lower 9th Ward heralds St. David’s new building

Members of the St. David Catholic Church community were out in force June 29 to celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving and dedicate their newly built gym and school building in the lower 9th Ward off St. Claude Avenue.

“We give praise to God almighty for his blessings to the St. David family,” Josephite Father Oswald Pierre-Jules, pastor, said at the Mass celebrated by Archbishop Gregory Aymond and concelebrated by Father William L. Norvel, superior general of the Society of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart; Father Charles Caluda; and Josephite Fathers Joseph Doyle and Roderick Coates.

Father Pierre-Jules thanked everyone who helped make the project a reality and joked how he once had served as an associate pastor to Father Norvel.

“The Lord has surely resurrected you from the problem of Katrina,” Father Norvel said. “This is a sign of God walking with you, and you walking with him day by day.”

Building God’s house
The 15,550-square-foot building signals hope for an area still struggling to recover from the wrath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It replaces a former school building on the same site and has six classrooms, administrative offices, a gym/multi-purpose room, kitchen and restrooms.

It will house a full-day Total Community Action Head Start program in early childhood Monday through Friday for children ages 3-4, with full breakfast, lunch and health assessments to link families with needed health resources. The building also will be used by the parish for religious education, parish events and youth programs.

Knowing the generations of students who had passed through the doors of the former St. David School, former pastor, Josephite Father Joseph Campion, recognized the importance of trying to get a school reopened in the neighborhood once the parish reopened in September 2007. The parish had quickly become a haven for families wanting some normalcy despite not having returned to their devastated homes.

When Father Pierre-Jules was assigned to St. David in October 2010, he intensified the effort to replace what they had lost to flood waters. He started meeting with former Auxiliary Bishop Shelton Fabre and the archdiocesan business office to work on getting the school building rebuilt.

“I think, first of all, our children must be a priority in everything we do,” Father Pierre-Jules said. “Jesus himself said, ‘Let the children come to me.’”

He knew some sort of childhood education building was needed as well as a place for the youth of the parish to be off the street and given a place to play sports.

Father Pierre-Jules said the archdiocese agreed to the replacement if he could find a tenant by December 2012 to uphold the financial end of maintaining it.

“I think the main concern of the archdiocese and the parish was we knew  that the school would not be back any time soon the way it used to be,” Father Pierre-Jules said. “And, we knew the building would have to be maintained.”

Father Pierre-Jules met with several prospective tenants until TCA agreed to the terms. By that time, plans had been drawn for the replacement elementary school building. Manning Architects had to adjust the design to accommodate TCA’s needs. Pierre-Jules said FEMA, who was footing the bill for a replacement building, wasn’t going to pay for the redesign, so TCA kicked in $85,000. Father Pierre-Jules made a commitment to TCA Head Start at the opening to be “the best host we can be,” and welcomed them to the parish family.

D. Honore Construction began work on the building in early 2013 and finished by June 2014. The project cost came in at $4,695,519, said Mike Burnette, assistant director of the archdiocesan building office.

Father Pierre-Jules said replacing the school building means so much to  parishioners, who call themselves “alumni.”

“The fact that they see that building here is a huge step for recovering from Katrina,” he said. “And the hope is that with a Head Start program in this new building, younger families will move here, and it will increase our church membership.”

He’s also hoping that the demographics would one day return to pre-Katrina levels so the parish school could possibly return. He’s already seen an uptick in religious education classes.

Big celebration
After the June 29 Mass, a procession down the block from the church led to a ribbon cutting at the new, elevated structure.

“Do you like this new building?” Archbishop Aymond asked once everybody was inside. He called the building a “beacon for the community” and a place where the Lord’s kingdom could be built up. He then blessed the new gym and classrooms prior to the serving of a jambalaya and chicken lunch and tours.

“We have fought long and hard and waited long to reopen the school, and God has answered our prayers,” Betty Stewart, a St. David graduate and long-time parishioner of St. David Parish. “We cannot wait to let the entire community know we have a new building we can now call home.”

Lifelong parishioner Byron Jupiter returned when St. David reopened. He was glad to see the building rebuilt and believes that it will help the parish grow.

“It should bring more people back to our parish, and we can hold more community events,” he said. “Once they come back, they will come back to Mass.”

Total Community Action Head Start can be reached at 309-3505.

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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