After Katrina, family histories have become priceless

By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald

“Family is a key component of our society,” said Religious of the Sacred Heart Sister Bonnie Kearney. “And to not know one’s family history makes building the larger community of society more difficult.” 

Sister Bonnie said family history is a treasure that people are often too busy to share with each other, “so they don’t know their own history and can’t celebrate it.”

With families reuniting during the holidays, the Religious of the Sacred Heart joined with the nearby Community Book Center near the former St. Rose of Lima Church on Bayou Road to offer free workshops on Saturdays through Dec. 1 to teach families techniques on sharing their past while enjoying their holiday meals together.

“These events can give them new, interesting and involving ways to gain more insight into their own families so that they might have them and celebrate them,” she said. “It’s not a white thing, it’s not a black thing, it’s a family thing.”

House opened in 2007

The Religious of the Sacred Heart sisters opened Duchesne House in 2007 as a place where mostly high school and college students could stay while they helped rebuild houses after Hurricane Katrina. In addition to rebuilding houses, the groups completed environmental projects and recently engaged in immersion projects on race, culture and poverty, Sister Bonnie said.

Being in close proximity to the Community Book Center  – a neighborhood hub for inclusion, literacy and engagement for the past 35 years – Sister Bonnie said the sisters at Duchesne House realized they and book center owner Vera Warren-Williams shared a mission to educate the whole person, and they quickly aligned.

It just so happened that while Warren-Williams was working on her thesis to complete a master’s degree in museum studies at Southern University of New Orleans and involving young people on how to collect and curate artifacts and to become keepers of their history, the Religious of the Sacred Heart were documenting their history and participation in enslavement at Grand Coteau, Louisiana, and St. Michael’s.  

This coincided with the City of New Orleans sponsoring Welcome Tables; the mayor and City Council voting to take down Confederate statues; and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the treatment of people based on race.  

Sister Bonnie said the sisters wrote a grant to fund the family history project to cross the boundaries of race, age and destruction – including Katrina and recent tornado and flood events. They partnered with the New Orleans Public Library on the project. 

“We wanted it to be educational and interactive,” Sister Bonnie said. “We wanted it for families and for the community.”  

She said elders are our living libraries, so why not show families how to do ancestry work, formulate questions that will allow generations to share their lived histories and how to do digital curating, deciding what documents, precious family papers and artifacts are important.  

The hope is that families will gather their family documents – birth certificates, marriage licenses, grandmother’s recipes, etc. – and start conversations over the table that might allow the younger generation to learn things from their elders to make their own histories clearer, Sister Bonnie said.

As the Society of the Sacred Heart closes the bicentennial year of its founder, St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, coming to the New World from France, “we felt this project would have been aligned with her missionary desires to recognize our common humanity and to work to make known God’s love for each one of us and especially those on the peripheries,” Sister Bonnie said.

Sister Bonnie said Hurricane Katrina ripped away so many things from families, and this project was one way to get them back together.

The opening symposium will be videotaped in the hopes schools might want to use it to involve students in discovering their own histories.

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

DISCOVER FAMILY HISTORY

The Religious of the Sacred Heart’s Duchesne House for volunteers and the Community Book Center on Bayou Road hold an intergenerational program teaching families to gather, document, preserve and celebrate their histories.

→ When: Oct. 27, 2-4 p.m., opening symposium with Greg Osborne of the Orleans Parish Public Library giving an overview on the purpose and value of getting involved with your ancestry; followed by Kysha Brown Robertson conducting a panel and interacting with families on how to gather families and collect information. Free workshops held from 2-4 p.m. on Saturdays. Nov. 3, “How to Do Ancestry Research,” with Antoinette Harrell; Nov. 10, “Collecting Family Histories,” with Jen Vitry and Freddi Evans to teach what to ask; and Dec. 1, “Archiving Family Data,” with Graynelle Brady. On Jan. 12, 2-4 p.m., there will be a closing block party on Bayou Road.

 → Where:  All workshops at the Sojourner Truth Neighborhood Center, 2200 Lafitte Ave., New Orleans. Parking is available. The center is accessible by RTA (84 N. Galvez + Lafitte).

→Details: Duchesne House at 325-5665 or email duchesnehouse@rscj.org. 

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