The ‘grandmother’ and her one-lap schoolhouse

By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary

The first time I met School Sister of Notre Dame Rose Elaine Kessler, a proud daughter of the 9th Ward, she pointed to the bulletin board in the hallway outside her office.

The principal of tiny St. Gerard Majella Alternative School – for girls who had become pregnant while attending Catholic high school in the Archdiocese of New Orleans – had created a prolife shrine with a montage of thumbtacked photos: Teenage moms, beaming and holding their infants.

“The only rule I have is that after a baby is born, no one at the school gets to hold the baby until I do,” Sister Rose Elaine said, chuckling about how she, as a redheaded girl from St. Cecilia Parish, had been transformed into a white-haired “grandmother,” caring for her “girls” who for months had felt trapped in a vortex of fear and despair.

Some girls’ parents wanted the problem to go away and figured an abortion would tidy up the inconvenient chaos.  The fathers of the children mostly disappeared. But from the mid-1990s through 2010 – standing tall even through Hurricane Katrina – Sister Rose Elaine was the rock, emboldening a staff of four full-time, certified teachers and counselors to care for and educate the expectant mothers.

School: A witness to life
St. Gerard Majella was believed to have been the only alternative Catholic school in the U.S. for girls who became pregnant and had to leave their home school. The idea was for them to take their regular coursework, with the help of Sister Rose Elaine’s staff, deliver their babies and then return to their home school.

When Sister Rose Elaine, 85, died July 18 at the motherhouse in Chatawa, Mississippi, she left a legacy not only of the thousands of children she had taught in elementary schools and at Seton Academy on Canal Street but also of the dozens of infants who had been saved and nurtured through her care.

One St. Gerard Majella mom, Sandy Wingerter Cobert, said Sister Rose Elaine’s “unconditional love and support” changed her life when she became pregnant in her senior year at Archbishop Chapelle High School.

“She always called us the ‘good ones,’” Cobert said.  “Instead of choosing the route of abortion and taking the easy route, we chose to have our children and keep them or put them up for adoption. She said we chose the right path.”

Oblate Father Tony Rigoli was attending a local meeting of Priests for Life when he first heard Sister Rose Elaine speak passionately of the transformative power of St. Gerard Majella, the school named for the patron saint of expectant mothers.

“She told us she wished she had a priest who could come in for a little prayer service with the girls every once in awhile, and that was 17 years ago, and I was lot younger then,” said Father Rigoli, who celebrated Sister Rose Elaine’s funeral Mass on July 22. “I had taught high school, so I volunteered, and that was the beginning of a wonderful relationship.  I never met someone who had such love for these girls. There was no prejudice or judgment. Rather, it was making them aware that they are loved, and the greatest gift they could give their babies was getting their own education. She was the closest thing to a saint I ever met, and I really mean that.”

Former Catholic Schools associate superintendent Joe Rosolino said the idea for a Catholic school for girls who became pregnant came in 1987 from longtime superintendent Howard Jenkins, who was trying to find something to fill the gap when The Louise School, run by Catholic Charities, had to shut down for lack of funding.

For several years, Judy and Vincent Miranti ran that program for expectant girls at a home on Plum Street, and the program then moved in 1997 to St. James Major and then, a few years later, to an available building on the campus of St. Frances Cabrini School.

Calmed parishioners’ fears
When some of the St. Frances Cabrini School preschool parents expressed concern about having pregnant teenagers on campus with their little ones, Rosolino said Sister Rose Elaine and Sister of St. Joseph Louise Aimee gave them a reassuring presentation.

“They said, ‘Listen, these are good girls. These are kids who got caught in a one-time mistake,’” Rosolino said.

One of Sister Rose Elaine’s finest skills was comforting parents who were furious at what they perceived as a dead-end situation for their daughters – the loss of education, career dreams and adolescent freedom.

“She was great with the parents,” Rosolino said. “They would come in angry with their daughters, and she had parents’ sessions with the counselors so they could work through the stages of guilt and anger, and gradually there was a shift over to loving their daughters. Sister Rose Elaine made friends with the families, and some of them even came and fixed the place up.”

Tucky Argus, who served as a St. Gerard Majella counselor for many years, said Sister Rose Elaine had a disarming way of getting the girls to acknowledge and adopt her point of view.

“She would often say to us – pointing at her own head – ‘Remember, this hair used to be red,’” Argus said, laughing. “If she ever wanted to threaten one of her students, she would say, ‘I’m going to pray that your baby is late!’ She was full of wit and humor, and she loved those girls. She called those babies her grandbabies, and the girls loved her. There was never a doubt in any student’s mind that she loved them.”

After Katrina, the school eventually moved to a space in the former Bishop Perry School in Faubourg Marigny, but it closed a few years after Katrina because of tight finances and fewer girls coming forward.

“It breaks my heart that the school is no longer there,” Argus said. “There just wasn’t enough money to support the school anymore. I don’t think it’s because we were hit by a wave of chastity. But the thing I will always remember are the girls on Facebook today, telling the whole world, ‘This is my baby. See that baby? That baby is a Marine today!’”

Actually, Sandy Cobert’ baby – Hunter Wingerter, a 2016 graduate of Archbishop Rummel High School – is 21 years old today and is serving in the U.S. Marines. Cobert entered St. Gerard Majella in October 1997 – joining about a dozen other girls – gave birth to Hunter in February 1998 and returned to Archbishop Chapelle in April, in time to graduate on time in May.  She said both St. Gerard Majella and Archbishop Chapelle gave her the hope she needed.

“My experience might have been a little different from some of the other girls because my parents supported me,” Cobert said. “They just said, ‘Let’s get our ducks in a row’ and we took the best approach so that I could continue my education. At the same time, it was scary having a child and going into an unfamiliar environment.  But as soon as I walked through that door, this was where I was meant to be. It was wonderful to have that foundation during the scariest moment of my life.”

Sister Rose Elaine made it happen.

“She was a pistol,” Cobert said. “She would not let you feel sorry for yourself.  You were welcomed to one bad day – no more. After that, we were going to do this together.”

“She filled the place with so much love, and that’s what the girls needed,” Father Rigoli said.  “They needed to know they still could move on with life, that it was not the end of the world. She was a woman in love with her work.”

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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