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ND nurtures New Orleans ties

Karen Langley | Thursday, October 27, 2005

While the South Bend, Ind. campus of the first U.S. school established by the Congregation of Holy Cross spent the fall inaugurating a new president and hosting football fans under a freshly gilded Dome, the Congregation’s second school has suffered destruction and devastation to its New Orleans campus in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The Holy Cross School, which serves 830 boys in grades 5-12, is located in the Ninth Ward, a district of New Orleans that received severe damage from Katrina, a category 5 storm that hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 25. All eight of the campus’ buildings suffered flood damage, and the gym’s roof was blown in by the heavy winds. Insurance is expected to cover only $2 million of the estimated $10 million of rebuilding costs, said Charles DiGange, Holy Cross Headmaster.

“We received six feet of water that covered the entire campus,” said DiGange, who graduated from Holy Cross and later worked as an Associate Vice President at Loyola University in New Orleans.

The Holy Cross School was founded in 1849, when five Holy Cross priests and brothers traveled from South Bend – where the order founded Notre Dame in 1842 – to New Orleans. The campus in the Ninth Ward has been the school’s home since 1859, though it received its official charter in 1979.

“We are in a very poor section of New Orleans, but the area we are located in is called the Holy Cross National Historical District,” DiGange said, noting that the school’s Main Building was one of a number of buildings in the district with historical significance.

One does not have to look far to find strong ties between Notre Dame and Holy Cross culture. The schools share the same colors, fight song and alma mater, though the words “Notre Dame” are of course replaced by “Holy Cross” for the New Orleans school.

“Another myth is that the fight song was actually written on our campus and sent to Notre Dame by one of the Brothers,” DiGange said.

Notre Dame may have relied on help from the Holy Cross School to remain open after its own Main Building burned to the ground in 1879, the headmaster said.

“We sold a major portion of our property for $10,000 to help Notre Dame,” DiGange said.

Though University President Father John Jenkins said he was unfamiliar with this story, it was seconded by Brother Donald Blauvelt, Province Secretary and Director of Formation for the South-West Province of the Congregation of Holy Cross.

“The Holy Cross School was always very supportive of Notre Dame,” Blauvelt said. “They have sold some property to support Notre Dame in time of need. In years when [the Holy Cross School] was successful and Notre Dame would have something like the fire, they would respond.”

The University later supported Holy Cross, lending inspiration to the high school’s students when legendary football coach Knute Rockne and the Notre Dame football team visited the Holy Cross campus on their way to the 1924 Rose Bowl. The team, led by the senior backfield nicknamed the Four Horsemen, went on to win the national championship.

“They took a Sunset Limited train that passed through New Orleans,” DiGange said. “Knute Rockne gave a speech to the student body, and the team practices on our practice field.”

Football remains a major part of school life at Holy Cross, as it has since its team’s inception in 1922. After Katrina, DiGange established a satellite campus in Baton Rouge, La. Along with a girls’ Catholic school from New Orleans, 175 Holy Cross boys attend school from 4-9 p.m. each day at the Dunham School, a private religious school. The others remain dispersed throughout the country.

Even with less than half of its student body in Baton Rouge, Holy Cross put together a football team – though without a campus of its own, the team has no locker room and keeps its equipment in a rental truck. A Baton Rouge grammar school allows the team to use its field for practice at 11:30 each morning, while a local YMCA provides a place for players to shower before classes start in the afternoon.

“This is a tremendous sacrifice these men are making to play football,” DiGange said.

Though DiGange is grateful that a satellite school has been possible, he is eager to move the students and faculty back home.

“We will be moving to New Orleans early in November,” he said. “The [girls’ school] campus will be okay to use in the afternoon.”

While there is much work to be done in New Orleans, funding is a greater issue than manpower.

“We’re looking basically for monetary donations to help bridge the gap between the damage costs and the insurance,” DiGange said. “When the restricted area [of the Ninth Ward] is opened up, we have a list of 80 volunteers just waiting for the go-ahead to come paint and move stuff. They will help spruce up the place.”

When a delegation from Notre Dame – including Jenkins – was in New Orleans last Wednesday, DiGange met with the representatives and showed them the damage to his campus.

“It was a poignant moment of solidarity among those who have the responsibility of carrying on [University founder] Father [Edward] Sorin’s legacy in this country,” said Father William Lies, director of the Center for Social Concerns and a member of the Notre Dame delegation.

Other Notre Dame representatives in New Orleans last week included professor Wilasa Vichit-Vadakan and professor Jennifer Woertz, both of the department of mechanical engineering and geological sciences. Their trip was part of a National Science Foundation grant to study mold in flood-damaged areas.

The Holy Cross School was identified as a place that needed help, and so the engineers met with DiGange and toured the campus.

“We took samples and pictures and will be back in touch with him once our analysis is done,” Vichit-Vadakan said.

Notre Dame is in touch with members of the Congregation of Holy Cross in New Orleans, but the University is best equipped to provide direct aid to post-secondary institutions, University spokesman Matt Storin said.

“The congregation might plan something on their own that’s separate from Notre Dame,” he said. “We would have less to do with them since they are a high school.”

Though the Congregation of Holy Cross does not have the resources to finance the rebuilding required by Holy Cross School, it intends to assist the school through fundraising efforts, Blauvelt said.

“It’s a massive rebuilding project at that school that will take a long time and a lot of money,” he said. “But [the school] has been on that property since the 1870s – it’s weathered previous hurricanes, but never as bad as this.”

The Holy Cross School has always been deeply involved the life of the Ninth Ward, which holds its neighborhood association meetings on the campus and benefits from the community cleanup days arranged by the school.

“We are the anchor of the neighborhood,” DiGange said.

Holy Cross also provides educational opportunities for young men in the community, providing 10 full scholarships per high school grade level to neighborhood boys who can handle the school’s curriculum but lack the funds to pay for it. In a tribute to the founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross, these students are called Moreau Scholars.

After having spent nearly half his life on the Holy Cross campus, DiGange remains optimistic about the future.

“I think we are going to come back,” he said. “The school has been through many things before … this is another bump on the road, but we are big and strong enough to rebuild. The philosophy of Father Moreau is still alive, to educate the mind, body, heart and soul.”

Donations for the Holy Cross School can be sent to:

Holy Cross Hope Fundc/o Brother Richard Critz, CSC1101 St. Edward’s DriveAustin, TX 78704-6512