Published November 17, 2005
A familiar tune echoed through the Our Lady of Mercy High School gymnasium on Tuesday, Nov. 8.
For many in the room, it was a song heard many times in the city they once called home, hundreds of miles away from the red and white gym with the snarling bobcat painted on the wall.
But at the Mass celebrated by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory for Gulf Coast students relocated temporarily or permanently to Atlanta Catholic schools, “When the Saints Go Marching In” seemed a fitting way to begin.
Almost 10 priests, many of them chaplains from schools in North Georgia, joined the archbishop to concelebrate the Mass, which brought together students from nearly all of the archdiocesan and independent Catholic schools. According to Kathi Stearns, chancellor, approximately 250 students from the New Orleans and Gulf Coast region were given free tuition for a year at archdiocesan schools.
At the beginning of his homily, Archbishop Gregory asked the students who were visiting from the Gulf Coast region to stand. When about 100 people stood up, the rest of the crowd burst into applause.
“A hundred thousand welcomes to you,” the archbishop said.
Wearing deep crimson vestments, Archbishop Gregory spoke of the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina survivors.
“One gift is that you have taught us that you are courageous. You have faced a tremendous challenge,” he said. “And you have provided us here in the Archdiocese of Atlanta with the opportunity to be like God—to be opening and welcoming. Thank you to you all.”
Not only have Catholics in the archdiocese learned from those touched by Katrina, but they have been able to put those lessons into practice.
“Thank you for giving us the opportunity to do what we are supposed to do—what God has taught us to do,” he said. “You have made us better—better schools, better communities, better parishes—by joining us. And I suspect that the longer you’re here, the better we’ll become.”
Archbishop Gregory spent much of his homily offering thanks to those who had relocated to the archdiocese.
“Thank you to all of the young students and parents. Thank you for choosing the Archdiocese of Atlanta, and if you didn’t choose us, thank you for deciding to come here. You have been a reflection for us of courage and faith and trust, you our brothers and sisters whose lives have been so shattered.”
Our Lady of Mercy welcomed 39 students from the Gulf Coast region to their school. Though some have relocated, their presence continues to make an impact at the school.
Wynton Yates, a senior at Mercy, is proud of what his school did to help those affected by the hurricane.
“Mercy responded very well, I think. We took them in and made them our friends,” he said.
Jason Anderson relocated to Mercy from New Orleans for this, his senior year of high school. Though the transition has been difficult, he has appreciated the way he has been treated.
“Everyone has been really welcoming,” he said. “I really didn’t expect people to be so nice to us, but they have welcomed us with open arms.”
Students at other schools in the archdiocese have also felt the welcome, including Dominique Bryant, a freshman from New Orleans who is now attending St. Pius X High School in Atlanta.
“(St. Pius) is fun. Everyone’s been really nice, but it’s been a big transition,” she said.
Nicole Wells is a senior from New Orleans who is now attending Pius. Her house was damaged during Katrina when water came in through the windows and flooded the house.
“The people at Pius have been nice and helpful, but it’s hard to change schools in your senior year. I think it’s a good school though,” she said.
The Espinosa family, which includes four children, relocated from New Orleans and began attending Immaculate Heart of Mary School in Atlanta. Yolanda Espinosa said that her family’s house flooded, and they “lost everything.” Still, she said, she is grateful to have a place to go and a community such as IHM for her children.
“It’s been rough, and it’s different here, so it’s hard to adjust. But people here have really helped us so much,” she said. “Everybody at the school has been wonderful and it’s really helping us.”
Sean Espinosa, who is the oldest child, is in the eighth grade at IHM.
“It’s very different from my last school, but I like it. The people are a lot nicer here,” he said.
His sister Valeria, who is in the sixth grade, said that everyone has been “loud and friendly.”
“I think it’s easier because the teachers are so helpful and give you more attention,” she said.
Tricia DeWitt, principal of IHM, said that 13 students from the Gulf Coast region came to the school, including her two nephews, who are from New Orleans.
“I’m so proud of our faculty. It’s really been their response that has touched me through this whole experience. We were at capacity, but every teacher was willing to take a few more students,” she said.
She said that within two weeks, the new students were fitted with uniforms and armed with books and other supplies. The school also raised $5,000 for the new families by taking up a collection.
As the students and their families return to their homes, it’s been hard to say good-bye, DeWitt said.
“Every time someone leaves, everyone’s in the carpool crying. It’s been so emotional for us,” she said. “Everyone made such an effort to really welcome them, and now it’s hard to see them leave.”