Story and Photos By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald
An unassuming presence on the corner of Broadway Street and Pritchard Place has created positive change in the Gert Town New Orleans neighborhood. It’s the Dominican Peace Center that began celebrating its fifth birthday Sept. 21 with a neighborhood party.
Members of St. Rita School of New Orleans’ Sensational Singing Panthers performed songs such as “This Little Light of Mine” and “Tell Him I’m a Child of God,” directed by school choir director Devin Boucree, and Archbishop Gregory Aymond visited as did associates of the Dominican Sisters of Peace and neighborhood residents who thanked the Dominican Sisters of Peace for presenting programming for all ages.
“We offer one-stop service,” said Dominican Sister of Peace Ceal Warner, a counselor who collaborates with Sister Suzanne Brauer and Sister Pat Thomas to run the center.
“This was the dream of the Dominican congregation – to have a neighborhood center,” Sister Pat said.
“You never know who is going to walk in that door or what their needs are, so you listen and try to figure out what they have to do,” Sister Suzanne said.
The sisters bring a wealth of experience to the center as they live out what social justice is. Sister Suzanne worked in the archdiocesan mission office for years, educating about mission work and cultural diversity; Sister Pat handled education at all levels – elementary, high school, college and adult education; and Sister Ceal, a licensed professional counselor, was a retreat leader and her congregation’s formation director and member of the leadership team.
“I didn’t want to talk about it anymore,” Sister Pat said. “I wanted to do it. That’s my reason for being here.”
United as one
The Dominican congregations of sisters and their associates joined forces in 2009 to become the new Dominican Sisters of Peace. The Peace Center was their first new ministry.
“This was the dream of the new Dominican congregation – to have a neighborhood center,” Sister Pat said. Due to their concern for the neighborhood, “we wanted to keep the Dominican Sisters’ presence in the neighborhood (in addition to nearby St. Mary’s Dominican High School). How could we be a place for peace and presence?”
The summer before the Peace Center opened, a group of newly formed Dominican Sisters of Peace went house to house in the neighborhood and asked residents what services they wanted.
“What we heard overwhelmingly was to do something for the kids,” Sister Suzanne said. “From the beginning, we also wanted to reach seniors, because they are a significant population here. Our ministries have evolved as we saw and responded to the neighborhood’s needs.”
Adult computer classes on Tuesday and Thursday mornings have proven immensely popular. Three, six-week sessions are offered in Introduction to Computer, Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Word.
Gert Town resident Humble Rumble, who attended the five-year center celebration, has been taking computer classes for three years. He calls Sister Suzanne his “hero.”
“I’ve learned a lot,” he said. He added how it’s changed attitudes of neighborhood children.
“It gives the kids something to do and gives them a different direction, something to focus on,” after school, he said.
“Kids are mostly focused on games,” attendee Laurie Wilson said, so the center “makes learning a little more fun for them.”
Job readiness training also has been beneficial, and after-school homework help with snacks has attracted neighborhood children, so many that it now has a waiting list. Some children have been after-school regulars from the beginning. Staying up-to-date, the center recently added new computers and has a library, science corner and game area.
“One good sign is they come back, and another is those who come back, you notice how well they (know the rules) and interact (by reiterating the rules) with new children. … Some of the kids are so comfortable coming here that they take off their shoes,” Sister Pat said.
The Peace Center also has a full, week-long summer camp, separate for boys and girls, with field trips, and distributes grants for children to attend Audubon Zoo summer camp for free.
Other Peace Center offerings are massages in May for Mother’s Day; Neighborhood Night Out Against Crime; bingo; and monthly senior luncheon talks provided by the nonprofit Gladewaves.
Collaborating with others has proven beneficial as well. The Peace Center has a host of adult volunteers, works closely with seminarians and the Xavier University of Louisiana’s Men on the Move and at Xavier’s Volunteer fair to cull college students to assist with after-school homework and be role models for center students.
Joining forces with Second Harvest Food Bank has allowed the Peace Center to distribute frozen meals, once a month, to residents of the Pine Street Apartments.
“That’s been a great partnership,” Sister Pat said. “We’ve signed up 20 people to receive frozen meals,” at the end of the month when these individuals run out of money for food.
When something happens in the neighborhood – such as a 2018 shooting – the sisters work with St. Rita Church nearby and other church denominations to respond with prayer.
“We try to be present because the people are ready to pray and come together,” Sister Suzanne said.
And, even if they have never stepped foot in the center, neighbors know the sisters by name. Center participants act as walking billboards who talk about their experiences. The three sisters also walk the surrounding streets distributing their quarterly newsletter filled with stories about the neighborhood “stars” who participate. Sister Pat recently began “Taking it the Streets,” one Saturday a month where she stands on a street corner with a sign asking, “How Can the Peace Center Help You?”
“They know us; they know we are here, Sister Pat said, and that’s a pretty good feeling.
“We are all the body of Christ, and we would like to live and grow together,” Sister Suzanne said.
The Peace Center, located at 2837 Broadway St., New Orleans, is open weekdays. For details, call 267-3342 or visit htttp://the peacecenternola.org.
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.