Beyond Surviving to Thriving
Redemptorist St. Gerard Catholic School is springing back to life. Founded on a strong alumni community and a tradition of educational excellence, the school is making a quiet comeback that’s more important now than ever.
The school provides a safe and welcoming environment for children faced with the challenges of an impoverished neighborhood.Learn About St. Gerard School
Messengers of Hope
The second annual “Messengers of Hope” Gala for St. Gerard Catholic School in Baton Rouge was held on Sunday, April 2. Internationally renowned Chef John Folse once again hosted the Gala at White Oak Estate and Gardens, and by all accounts the Gala was a great success. The fundraiser is important support for the school and highlights a growing confidence in the elementary school’s future. St. Gerard Parish, founded by the Redemptorists at the end of the Second World War, as well as the school which was completed in 1958, prospered at that time along with the neighborhood—a mix of blue collar and local business families. From the school’s inception, dedicated Sisters of Notre Dame and lay teachers along with generous parishioners created a familial community and a tradition of educational excellence.
However, school enrollment at St. Gerard peaked at about two thousand students in the early 1960s. In the years since then, the Catholic population of the neighborhood of north Baton Rouge decreased, and the average age of St. Gerard parishioners now stands in the 70-something range. As the population of the parish went down, the school also suffered. The growing poverty of the area added additional challenges.
There remained all the time, though, a strong love for St. Gerard and its tradition which is now fueling a quiet revival of the elementary school. This revival owes a lot to a dedicated group of school alumni calling themselves the Friends of Redemptorist St. Gerard. They are returning to help a new generation of neighborhood kids. Kathy Woods is one of these alumni. She grew up in St. Gerard parish in the 1960s. “Everything that we are was in that church; I received the sacraments there. The school had a huge impact on us and we were a very tight knit community.”
Building It Back
Building Redemptorist St. Gerard back up is a work in progress with the Friends involved in everything from the quality of education to the physical maintenance of the church. Kathy, a loan portfolio manager in the financial industry, helps with fundraising for the parish and school including this April’s second annual “Messengers of Hope Gala.” Although Kathy no longer lives within the boundaries of St. Gerard parish, she and many St. Gerard alumni are “focused on trying to get this school back to where it was for the people who now live in this area.”
Kathy also credits pastor Fr. Tat Hoang, C.Ss.R., who arrived at St. Gerard’s in 2019, for playing a big role in the parish’s recent revival. “Fr. Tat has a huge gift for bringing people in and helping people understand they’re cared about. This is not like the public school where no one cares about you beyond a grade. The kids go to Mass and participate even though most are not Catholic. They get more guidance, instruction and care than they otherwise would. It’s a labor of love for all of us.” Redemptorist St. Gerard maintains a strong Catholic discipline which separates it from charter and private schools.
Kathy points out the stark options for children in the St. Gerard neighborhood. “If these kids didn’t go to St. Gerard, they’d be going to a failing public school in the neighborhood. Their future hinges on this school.” Because of the academic conditions at the local public schools, most of the St. Gerard families are able to get state vouchers which allow them to attend the school. “But for a lot of these kids, it’s there only opportunity.” For the children and their families, the stakes are high. Attending St. Gerard has become a gateway to future academic success. Many St. Gerard graduates now go on to the Baton Rouge Magnet High School, one of the highest ranked high schools in Louisiana, or to an academically driven Catholic high school. These are opportunities they would not otherwise have.
The children’s success requires plenty of volunteer hours. St Gerard’s has an after-school and tutoring program where the kids can get help with homework and just do fun things. The parents are grateful for the opportunities for their children to participate in these activities which also include athletic programs. Parents support the school’s programs to whatever degree they can, given their limited resources and time. Kathy notes that just for a parent to go through the enrollment application process for St. Gerard takes lots of work—gathering documents and filling out forms. It shows they are interested in their children getting a better education. She also notes that “the parents have no problem with their kids getting religious education from a different denomination because they know their kids are in a safe place. They’re being taught to be rounded in all areas: how to communicate, respect and love each other.”
“For the children and their families, the stakes are high.”
Fr. Tat, Chef Fosse and volunteers
“There is life, mission, zeal, hope, joy…”
The Path Forward
The revival of St. Gerard school is working hand-in-hand with the revival of St. Gerard parish. A lot of what Friends of Redemptorist St. Gerard does is fundraising, but it’s also an opportunity for many St. Gerard parish alumni to return to their roots. “We approach all the past graduates of St Gerard and many have come back to help at the school and church,” she says. “Families of past parishioners now come together for Christmas Mass and every year we see a bigger and bigger attendance.” St. Gerard also hosts a “Blue Mass” each year at the church for the city’s law enforcement officers. “We’re advertising in a lot of ways, and we’re reaching a lot of people who graduated from here. St. Gerard tugs at the heartstrings of people and slowly there’s more and more people attending the church.”
In addition to Friends of Redemptorist St. Gerard, another important partners for the school has been the Knights of Columbus. Both groups bring people into the church, often by hosting events tied to a Mass, such as a high school reunion. “We’re also able to reach out to people who had ties to the former high school and junior high. And they’re seeing what’s happening and we’re getting their attention.” There’s no better sign of the school’s growing popularity than the involvement of internationally renowned Chef John Folse. Chef Folse prepared the food for the inaugural Gala and is doing the same for this year’s Messengers of Hope. “A lot of people are putting in time,” Kathy notes.
A few years ago there was talk that Redemptorist St. Gerard Catholic School would soon be closing—the need was so big in so many ways. “When Fr. Tat arrived four years ago, he was a huge part of making a difference. We got together with him. We just got the right people in the right context. Fr. Tat and Principal Cheryl Domino came to St. Gerard at the same time. They were able to come in and identify the biggest needs in each area. And it got people to begin asking, ‘who do we know who can help?’’’
Kathy describes how everyone began tapping into their networks and people came to help out with everything from tutoring to fundraising. It was a case of people knowing the right people to get things done. She mentions that one of the first things was getting new computers for the computer lab, there was also lots of repairs needed for the building, and a school bus is now also being discussed. “We do lots of kinds of fundraising, for example, we sell raffle tickets for Tony’s Seafood Market.” Kathy notes that Tony’s, a neighborhood landmark dating back to the late 1950s, has always stepped in to help the school and parish. “They’re across the street from the church. They’ve kept their commitment to the church and school.”
Kathy describes St. Gerard’s enduring mission as creating an academically excellent school that also provides spiritual and moral guidance for the children in the area. “We want to bring the school back to where it was when we were young—beyond surviving to thriving. We’d like to expand beyond the close neighborhood. We’ve been blessed with some wonderful people who are not just writing checks, but also showing up and doing amazing things for the school. They’re not doing it for a tax write off; they’re doing it for the kids. They see the difference in the kids.”
A recent sermon of Fr. Tat’s on the feast day of Redemptorist St. Clement Hoffbauer sums up the spirit of revival at St. Gerard’s. “Some of you are wondering what is going on at St. Gerard’s church, school and community in Baton Rouge. It seems there is life, mission, zeal, hope, joy…. You are wondering right.”