Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


School Shares Patron Saint’s Ministry Of Welcome

By MARY ANNE CASTRANIO, Staff Writer | Published December 8, 2005

As evacuees from the Gulf Coast region streamed into Atlanta during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Catholic schools in North Georgia opened their doors to many of the children fleeing the destruction and seeking shelter. And St. Peter Claver Regional School, which started the school year with 98 students, expanded dramatically when 42 students from the affected region, ranging from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade, were suddenly added to its roster.

Lucia Sizemore, the school’s development director, said that while a number of the students have relocated to other states because of their parents’ jobs or have returned to their homes near the coast, 25 of the 42 students remain at the Decatur school and have become a permanent part of the school’s close community of families.

In a Mass at the school on Sept. 6 celebrating the feast day of St. Peter Claver, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory reminded the students, faculty and families of the story of the saint for whom the school is named, a saint who ministered to those who had traveled from faraway places.

Born in Spain in 1581, St. Peter Claver became a missionary to South America, serving in Cartagena (now Colombia), which was a center of the slave trade in the New World at that time. He baptized approximately 300,000 slaves during his 40 years of ministry, ministering to the physical and spiritual needs of those who came to him, having left all that was familiar behind them.

At the Mass Archbishop Gregory challenged those gathered, as a school and as individuals, to reflect the caring hospitality of their patron saint in welcoming those who have come to their doors because of the devastation to their homes.

Sizemore said, “The archbishop’s visit and his comments reminded the students that St. Peter Claver was the saint of hospitality and gave our school a sense of integrity … that we have the same spirit.”

In the months since the students arrived, they have really become a part of the school community, she said.

At the school’s traditional Thanksgiving dinner, held Nov. 17 and sponsored by the Home and School Association, a Mardi Gras table was set up, festooned with a gold tablecloth and beads and adding a special flavor to the food choices. School families from the Gulf Coast brought in gumbo and dirty rice so that the approximately 250 attendees could enjoy Thanksgiving “New Orleans style.”

The dinner also featured another gift from the New Orleans students: a liturgical dance performance. Older sisters of several of the students originally from St. Peter Claver School in New Orleans coached the fifth-grade students in learning and performing liturgical dance, an art not previously taught at the Decatur school.

Katrina families have added to the learning environment at St. Peter Claver, said Sizemore. In addition to those parents who have volunteered to help in the development office and the library during the time that they have been searching for jobs, several faculty positions were filled by parents who evacuated from New Orleans. Nina Nuridden-Reese, the new substitute teacher for kindergarten and the parent of a seventh-grade student, just happened to have the right background for the job. And the school’s new resource teacher for the remainder of the school year, Sheila Andry, is also from New Orleans and had been a Catholic school teacher there. The mother of a St. Peter Claver eighth-grader and a senior at Our Lady of Mercy High School, Fairburn, she is working as an intervention specialist, spending extra time with children who need some help to stay on target with their peers.

Sizemore said that one of the most heartwarming aspects of the school’s opening its doors to help the students from the Gulf Coast was the generosity of people who have helped them with school supplies and monetary donations. They have ranged from the small donation of one little girl, who gave her money with a handwritten note that said, “Thank you for giving the children of New Orleans a school,” to the “people of means” who have given so that the school could offset the costs of uniforms, lunches and other expenses. The sudden influx of middle school students caused a strain on the school’s computer lab, she said, and upgrades of the equipment in that part of the school are in process.

People from outside the archdiocese read about the evacuees coming to Atlanta Catholic schools and sent help as well. A Catholic school in New York sent a check for $1,060, and other donations came from individuals.

One tiny Catholic school of 35 students, St. Julian School, in Middleboro, Ky., wanted to help young Katrina evacuees with their transition to new schools in Georgia. Retired teacher and volunteer Helen Hartley and schoolteacher Dorothy Smith coordinated St. Julian School’s efforts to serve others in need. Through connections Hartley had with Catholic activities in Atlanta, the school discovered that St. Peter Claver Regional School had accepted 42 new students from the Gulf Coast. They collected a truckload of school supplies from their community (including three-ring binders, paper, dividers, pens, pencils, folders, crayons, glue sticks, art supplies, learning cards and more) and books for recreational reading for their fellow students in Decatur.

When the original plan of using a driver and truck from a local business to bring the supplies to Atlanta fell through, the 82-year-old Hartley rented a truck and drove the materials to Atlanta herself. Helping with the project were local Atlanta parishioners Joan Moore of St. Anthony of Padua Church, Atlanta, and Nina Payne and Beverly Maxwell of Sts. Peter and Paul Church, Decatur, who worked with the volunteers from Kentucky to get the supplies to the right place.

The school set up a “Katrina Store” to allow evacuees to get the needed supplies.

Sizemore said that teachers and students have been “thrilled by these tangible offerings of support for students trying to rebuild their academic lives while their families work to rebuild their personal lives.”

She noted that the St. Peter Claver School family has been “so blessed in that every family that came to us cared about Catholic education and looked for a school first (sometimes with paid receipts from Catholic schools back home) and then a place to live.” She believes that the new families are people who have made a “commitment to Catholic education.” The parents of their new students are talented, wonderful people, she continued, who are just trying to put the lives of their families back together.