It was a scene that could only have unfolded at a Catholic school.
Back in the mid-1980s, when St. Matthew the Apostle teacher Mary Ann Broussard spied some of her first graders taking a shortcut through a campus flowerbed, she scolded them in that very loving, Catholic way.
“Lord, have mercy, children!” said Broussard to the red-faced culprits. “What would Father say?”
Without missing a beat, the youngsters answered their teacher in unison: “Christ, have mercy!”
This and other fond memories of teaching at the River Ridge elementary school were shared at the Jan. 7 unveiling of St. Matthew’s “Wall of Honor” dedicated to the invaluable contributions of veteran faculty and staff.
Located adjacent to the school office and painted in the school colors of royal blue, black and white, the wall – sporting plaques picturing its inaugural class of honorees – was blessed with holy water by Father Joseph Tran, St. Matthew’s pastor.
Recognized on the wall are:
• Patsy White, who taught third grade and art for 48 years;
• The late Dot Clary, St. Matthew’s founding secretary, who served for 42 years;
• Elizabeth Denham, a third grade teacher for 34 years;
• Mary Ann Broussard, a first grade teacher for 30 years;
• Miki Steger, a fourth grade teacher and school librarian for 30 years.
• The Teresian Sisters, who founded the school in 1960.
Warmth of school family
Broussard, who taught at St. Matthew from 1983-2014, said the warmth of faculty, administration, students, parents and the River Ridge community made St. Matthew a special place to which to commute from her home in Kenner.
“My favorite thing about teaching first grade is that there is such a progression from start to finish – a lot of them come in just barely reading, but by the end of the year they’re reading and writing and spelling and doing math,” Broussard said. “You just see that growth!”
Watching light bulbs go off in her students’ heads was “the best feeling in the world,” Broussard said, recalling how one of her students became especially animated during a lesson on Christopher Columbus.
“We were talking about the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, and he raises his hand, as serious as can be, and says, ‘I sailed to Florida once on the Pinta,’” Broussard said. “He just wanted to make sure he was included with Columbus! Adorable!”
Denham and White taught third grade in neighboring classrooms over mostly overlapping tenures at St. Matthew.
“I was always excited for a new year. Every year it was different with different kids,” White said, using words such as “home” and “family” to characterize the school community.
“I loved the kids and they loved me,” said White, who began at St. Matthew in 1968. “Third grade is the best grade. They’re independent; they love you. They love their teachers still – they’re not smart alecs!”
Denham, now retired and living in Des Allemands, agreed with her former colleague.
“They’re just so sweet, so dear,” she said. “They love you; they believe in you; they still believe in magic and in the things that are good for them; they still trust you; they don’t question you.”
Denham said Catholic school teachers have the “privilege and honor” of reinforcing values taught in the home and teaching from scratch values and tenets of the faith that parents may not have time to address. Third grade teachers preach sharing, understanding others’ mistakes and the importance of forgiveness, she said.
“Catholic education is the best thing that can happen to a child – it just gives you a different perspective on life and values that are reinforced every day,” Denham said.”
Teresians’ place of honor
The wall’s most prominent plaque acknowledges the school’s debt to the Society of St. Teresa of Jesus Sisters (the Teresian Sisters). By the time the congregation left St. Matthew in 1991, 56 sisters – five of them principals – had served there under the Teresian motto “All for Jesus.”
“At St. Matthew we say, ‘Once is a tradition’ – once you start something, like the Nativity pageant or the St. Joseph Altar, it continues to this day,” said Teresian Sister Gina Geraci, reminiscing about her tenure there from 1985-87 teaching 11 daily religion classes to students in grades two through five, and a weekly music class to 100 kindergartners.
“To listen to the children sing – that’s what I miss the most; working with the children for the liturgy,” Sister Gina said. When she made her final vows, more than 100 people from the church and school community, including the entire choir, traveled to St. Joseph Abbey for her Mass of Consecration.
“The faculty and administration have always shown their gratitude to us (Teresians) over the years, and they’re very special people,” she said. Heart and soul
Clary, who died in 2001, received her Wall of Honor plaque posthumously. The parish’s first lay employee, she wore two hats: one as the school secretary who would arrive before everyone else; and another as an assistant with parish finances, a role she would complete in the church rectory in the evenings. After putting her children to bed, Clary had yet another job manning the nighttime switchboard at Mercy Hospital.
“She was the heart and soul of this place; her whole life was here,” said Coach Dave McCuller, St. Matthew’s youth and athletic director, recalling the days when students were rarely allowed to leave school, even when they were sick.
“Every kid in those early years remembers how Miss Dot put ‘monkey blood’ – Mercurochrome – on everything and gave ‘magic mints’ and ‘magic water’ to treat any ailment, real or unreal,” McCuller said.
Wall honoree Steger, who was under the weather and unable to attend the dedication, retired from teaching in 2005. Her achievements include setting up St. Matthew’s first computer lab, digitizing library records and serving as president of the Catholic Library Association.
Steger famously referred to her class as the “49ers” (fourth graders based in Room 9) and expressed her passion for LSU by decking her classroom in purple and gold.
“She called every student ‘George,’ whether they were a boy or a girl,” McCuller said, smiling. “She had a problem with names.”
Beth Donze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.