Sacred Heart of Jesus Saint Katharine Drexel School
Sacred Heart of Jesus/ Saint Katharine Drexel School was recently recognized by the Calcasieu Historical Preservation Society with a Landmark Award. “The history of the school is unique in that the school opened its doors 11 years before Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church was founded,” said A.C. Bourdier, awards chairman for the society.
The original school was built in 1908, and the parish was established in 1919, with services held in the school. The Landmark Award recognizes the restoration of a historic structure as near as possible to its original look. The school suffered extensive damage from Hurricane Rita in 2005, when the main building, the former convent for the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, had to be gutted.
The $2.2 million renovation left the dignified, historic outer walls intact while upgrading the building to one of the most technologically advanced schools in the diocese, according to Morris LeBleu, director of communications for the Diocese of Lake Charles. “In the early 1900s, there was only one Catholic church in Lake Charles, and it was some distance from the African American community,” said Bourdier. “It had become standard practice for Catholics in the area to ‘walk to town’ for Mass. During those walks, the conversation turned to common problems: employment, housing, raising families and education for their children. They wished, especially in inclement weather, that these ‘walks’ could be eliminated with a nearby church of their own.”
Hoping to somehow fill the need for both a school and parish church, a delegation approached the pastor at Immaculate Conception Church in Lake Charles for help. He, in turn, approached the pastor of St. John Cathedral in Lafayette, who, in turn, approached the Sisters of the Holy Family for help in locating a teacher. In 1908, a school board was organized, a teacher was hired, and 18 students enrolled in the city’s first private parochial school for African Americans. Classes began in a rented building, and volunteers built the “Little Red School House,” which opened in 1910.
When a priest was assigned to develop a parish nine years later, he contacted Mother Katharine Drexel, founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. She contributed $3,000 for the school and sent nuns to help with the growing number of students. She later financed the building of a convent and the addition of a second story to the church, which allowed the school to expand by four additional classrooms. The Sisters began overseeing the school in 1922. Mother Katharine Drexel used an inheritance from her father, the heir to a wealthy Philadelphia family, to finance her religious order and subsequently build 60 schools for Native Americans and African Americans across the Untied States, as well as Xavier University in New Orleans. She was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000.
Sacred Heart of Jesus/Saint Katharine Drexel School at 1100 Mill St. also received a special award for excellence in historic preservation from the Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation at its conference in April 2010.