A blue-ribbon day for St. Michael’s

Story and Photos By Beth Donze, Clarion Herald

As students from St. Michael Special School walked into the New Orleans sunshine after an Aug. 28 prayer service in the gym, their enthusiastic rendition of the recessional hymn reverberated down Chippewa Street: “This is the day that the Lord has made!”

Minutes later, they cheered as Archbishop Gregory Aymond cut a blue ribbon marking the official opening of their campus’ magnificently restored convent building, the former home of their school’s founders, the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

Inside, visitors were treated to the stunning results of a five-year, $5 million capital campaign that transformed the 1850s-built, Greek revival structure into new classrooms for technology, music and workplace training, and also made space for a breathtaking new chapel for student Masses, prayer services and eucharistic adoration.

In the footsteps of a saint

One previously hidden treasure was also unveiled: The restoration, to its original appearance, of the modest bedroom occupied by St. Teresa of Calcutta during her one-night stay at the convent in 1976.

“After five long years of raising money, I finally get to stand here and say, ‘We did it!’ We made our goal, and the new building is absolutely gorgeous!” said Maureen Huguley, co-chair of the capital campaign.

“For over 50 years, St. Michael’s has been educating God’s most special children,” Huguley said. “No one knows which family God will select next to raise a child on the journey on the road less traveled. But what we know for certain, because of all of our supporters here today, is St. Michael’s will be ready to welcome that child.”

Music, technology hubs

A long center hallway separates two main wings on the building’s first floor. The wing to the left will host music classes for all grades and provide a dedicated space for rehearsals of St. Michael’s famous English Bell Choir, which formerly had to practice in the kitchen, library and lunch room.

The wing to the right of the central hallway holds a state-of-the-art computer lab, set up to accommodate both individual and group learning. Cheerful touches in the lab include posters listing famous quotes from Fred Rogers (of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” fame), including “I like you just the way you are,” and “Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life is a hero to me.”

Chapel features student art

A separate first-floor entrance, set to the rear of the building, leads to St. Michael’s immaculate new chapel, which is dedicated to St. Teresa of Calcutta and follows the footprint of the convent’s original service wing. Banks of highly placed windows usher in loads of natural light and illuminate the chapel’s trussed ceiling, white marble walls and flooring, honey-toned pews and sanctuary cross. Among its most arresting features are plaques marking the 14 stations of the cross, each made by St. Michael students out of colorful shards of fused glass.

Jobs ‘exploration’ upstairs

Most of the building’s second floor, accessible by its original staircase and new elevators, is the new home of St. Michael’s Exploration Academy. Currently in its third year of operation, the post-high school program assists students who are interested in transitioning to community-based work and offers a dedicated classroom for St. Michael students who are preparing for their HiSET exam, (High School Equivalency Test), formerly known as the GED.

“We’ve always had a great sheltered activities center at St. Michael’s with the Joy Center, but we were finding that a lot of our graduates wanted to go out into the community and find either part-time, fulltime or volunteer work outside of St. Michael’s,” said Laurel Alonzo, director of adult programs, noting that 35 students currently are using the Exploration Academy to hone their work, technology and interpersonal skills and have found positions at workplaces including Ochsner, Volunteers of America and Lambeth House.

In the footsteps of a saint

Rounding out the second-floor is a special nook: The bedroom in which Mother Teresa slept during her Bicentennial year visit to the United States. A rosary belonging to Sister Lillian McCormack, who founded St. Michael Special School in 1965, sits atop the single-size bed, and St. Teresa’s thank-you note to the sisters adorns a bedroom wall.

Earlier, Romaine McCarthy, St. Michael’s new principal, reminded students and guests that St. Teresa would have turned 109 just two days earlier – on Aug. 26. McCarthy noted how the new chapel named in the saint’s honor was designed to remind visitors of the “pure hearts” in each St. Michael student.

“We are humbled by God’s presence in each smiling face. Each day we are reminded that we are all created in the image of God,” McCarthy said. “The students of St. Michael’s have so many gifts to give, most of all, to show us how we should view the world.”

Lovingly restored

The project’s architects – Robert Boyd and Patrick Kraft of Holly & Smith Architects of New Orleans – based their restoration of the exterior on a pair of undated historic images from the late 19th century and on information gleaned from Sanborn maps from the period.

General contractors Voelkel McWilliams Construction of Mandeville took care to preserve the building’s historic “bones,” which include pine flooring, exquisite molding and floor-to-ceiling windows. A clever use of space underneath the staircase, which has been elegantly curving up to the second floor for 170 years, allows Bell Choir members to store their robes.

Archbishop Aymond said St. Michael’s young and young adult students are “truly special to God” and to the community of faith.

“Students, you enrich who we are as people of God. We are grateful for your life; we are grateful for your gifts; and we are grateful that you have the opportunity to be here at St. Michael Special School,” the archbishop said.

Archbishop Aymond noted how the prayer service’s Gospel reading from St. Mark, in which Jesus rebukes the disciples for shooing away the children, reminded him of the warm welcome every student and visitor to St. Michael Special School receives.

“Jesus says – through the principal, the teachers, the faculty, the staff – ‘Let the children come to me,’” he said. “That is why St. Michael Special School exists, so that our young people, our young adults (enrolled here) can draw close to the Lord Jesus and hear him calling them by name and saying, ‘Come closer! Come closer!’”

The restored building, whose original chapel had been used by students until about eight years ago, was also toured by Tish Sauerhoff, who helped shepherd the capital campaign during her four years as St. Michael’s principal.

The building’s early occupants were the Sisters of Mercy, who established and staffed the former parochial school at St. Michael Parish beginning in the 1880s.

Beth Donze can be reached at bdonze@clarionherald.org.

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