By Christine Bordelon
The celebration of Mass June 17 at St. Joseph the Worker Church in Marrero was also the setting for the commissioning of parishioner Dr. RaeNell Houston as the new superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
Archbishop Gregory Aymond called Houston to the altar after having preached the Gospel message – on this feast day of the Body and Blood of Christ – that those gathered had to reach out and feed others as Jesus feeds them in the intimate encounter of the Eucharist.
Standing before Archbishop Aymond and her fellow parishioners, Houston – who as a 20-year Catholic educator has followed Jesus’ directive of feeding youth – stated her intentions as superintendent by responding to Archbishop Aymond’s questions:
“RaeNell, are you prepared to support and lead the ministry of Catholic education in our archdiocese as superintendent of Catholic schools?” “I am,” she answered.
“Are you committed to support authentic Catholic doctrine to further the mission of the Catholic Church?” “I am,” she answered again.
“Are you committed to the care and education of the students of our Catholic schools, the formation of our administrators, teachers and staff and to the building up of the families of our students and our family of Catholic schools?” “I am.”
Hands raised in support as Archbishop Aymond asked God “to bless our sister and your daughter RaeNell and strengthen her with your gifts as she takes on this new responsibility. May she lead by word and by example, sharing her knowledge with gentle patience. Lord, let your spirit uphold her always. May she continue to have a listening ear, a compassionate heart and a discerning mind that she may use her gifts for the good of the church, especially for the children in our archdiocese.”
The loud applause that followed ushered in Houston’s official journey as school superintendent.
“I truly felt the love and support of my church family,” Houston said about the ceremony.
The ceremony was suggested by pastor, Father Eugene Jacques, who said the parish community was proud of her accomplishment, and he believed something special was in order.
“She’s an outstanding leader and very humble,” said St. Joseph the Worker parishioner Victoria Mayfield who has known Houston for more than a decade through their children’s participation in parish catechism. “She’s positive and always has a kind word to say about everyone. God has blessed us with an outstanding leader.”
Her faith is strong
Since 1997, Houston been a teacher and visiting professor at Southeastern Louisiana University and was an assistant professor of education at the University of Holy Cross. She joined the Office of Catholic Schools in 2012 as associate superintendent overseeing standardized testing, school vouchers and the tuition donation rebate program.
For Houston, being superintendent of Catholic schools marries her educational knowledge and experience with her faith.
She cites her grandparents and her parents, Lynn and Reginald Billiot, as her faith role models who showed her how to live a faith-filled life at her childhood parish of St. Anthony in Venice.
“I grew up watching my parents and grandparents serve the church in every way they could. As a child, I was part of my mother’s group that cleaned the church, so I grew up serving the church – that’s what you do. We serve God, we serve our community and our church.”
While Houston didn’t attend Catholic schools growing up since no nearby Catholic schools existed in Plaquemines Parish, she took part in CCD and the CYO, noticing how Catholic youth were “respectful, demonstrated good sportsmanship and prayed before and after games.”
She views Catholic schools as “one of most effective tools for evangelization” not only for students but also for parents, faculty and staff. They are “vital to the evangelization and educational mission of the Catholic Church.”
She believes that teaching the Gospel lessons of Christ in school to future community leaders impacts “our battle against violence, murder and racism.”
She’s knows God’s hand was all over her decision to apply for the superintendent’s job. Somewhat familiar with the complexity of being superintendent, she said she initially was hesitant. But, when asked to discern over prayer, many signs directed her to take the leap.
“As I reflect on my journey, to this point, it always goes back to me saying ‘yes’ and being available to him,” Houston said. “It’s always been that way, in my family or my job, to do God’s will.”
Her new associate superintendents – Michael Buras, Martha Mundine and Ingrid Fields – also said yes when she asked them to come aboard.
These affirmations guided her to present her Office of Catholic School co-workers at a June retreat with an oyster shell bearing the image of Jesus’ mother, Mary, to remind them of her willingness to say yes to being the handmaiden of the Lord. Several “God” moments happened on that retreat, Houston said, making her truly hopeful as she leads the Office of Catholic Schools this new school year.
“I am surrounded by truly Catholic and faith-filled people who are dedicated to the ministry of Catholic education,” Houston said. “I know there will be great things to come from this office.”
Wheels turning already
Her announcement as new superintendent was made in February, giving her time to discuss many aspects of the job with her predecessor Dr. Jan Lancaster.
Before leaving, Lancaster invited Houston to the “Big Ten” meeting in Chicago to discuss challenges facing the dioceses with the highest Catholic school populations in the nation and to hear and share success stories. New Orleans has the 10th highest population, she said.
“We have some challenges, but the challenges we face are not unique to us,” Houston said she learned at the “Big 10” meeting. “It was great for me to be part of the conversation to hear about challenges we all are facing.”
Challenges Houston cited include affordability of Catholic schools; declining enrollment due to many factors, including more school choice with free charter and magnet schools; shrinking state money for students on vouchers (down $1.1 million in the 2017-18 school year to $39.9 million); and declining participation in Catholic parishes.
She also had the privilege to observe how “The Partnership,” a nonprofit collaborative in the Archdiocese of New York of inner-city schools, business partners and other supportive stakeholders, is achieving success.
These and other educational experiences she’s had have sparked ideas for several initiatives she hopes to tackle during her first year as superintendent.
Other focuses include:
Enrollment and strengthening the office’s marketing strategy to better reach millennial and other parents;
Working more closely with pastors. She believes if the channel of communications is strengthened within the parishes, you can also strengthen the Catholic schools;
Outreach to under-represented minority communities (Hispanic, Vietnamese) and building on the new special needs initiative;
Partnering with other members of the community and continuing to build on positive relationships she’s established in the education field locally and nationally;
Continuing support of school-choice and strong curriculum initiatives and strengthening relationships with local Catholic colleges for dual enrollment;
Resurrecting the archdiocesan school board to obtain varied perspectives from lay people, religious, business owners, educators and other Catholic education stakeholders so as to better tackle challenges with innovative ideas.
“I feel this position is the perfect match for me because of my desire to serve my church and both my educational and professional experiences,” Houston said. “I am confident that I have the knowledge, skills and relationships to be the superintendent.”
She tells people that she is so blessed to be able to serve the church and community as an educator. She knows it is a job to many, but she considers it as a ministry as well.
“I see God’s hand in my professional life. He put people in my path at pivotal times to point me in the right direction.”
Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarion herald.org.