BILOXI, Miss. -- The Catholic Diocese of Biloxi has a long-standing tradition of excellence in education. Standardized test scores of their students consistently place higher than their statewide and even national counterparts. School leaders attribute this success to their belief in "education of the whole person - academically, socially, physically, and spiritually." Beginning with a strong foundation of faith, the Diocese also instills in its students not just the skills needed to make a living, but the values considered necessary "to build a life at peace with God and neighbor."
Hurricane Katrina tested the faith of the Diocese when it destroyed six of its schools, resulting in approximately $37 million in damage. Faculty, pastors, principals, school advisory councils, and others looked to their higher power to offer consolation from the storm's wrath.
"I would say people were shocked, saddened, and initially overwhelmed, but not hopeless. Our faith would not allow us to be hopeless," said Dr. Rhonda Clark, Assistant Superintendent of Education. "Any negative feelings had to be pushed to the side when it was realized what was at stake. The educators in the schools of the Diocese of Biloxi knew that one of the most important things that could be done was to get the schools reopened. A community cannot begin to heal unless parents know their children are okay."
After careful consideration, the Diocese created a rebuilding plan which included an option to consolidate some of the destroyed schools and rebuild them in new locations. The Diocese determined it would be in the best interest of the schools, students and parishioners to combine schools.
With a lot of faith, insurance funds, and a Public Assistance grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Diocese launched its plan. Despite initial concerns, students responded well to the consolidation. Ultimately, seeing familiar faces outweighed the fear of new surroundings.
"Educational facilities are important to a community's well-being," said Jeff Byard, acting director of FEMA's Biloxi Transitional Recovery Office. "Working in partnership with the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) and the Catholic Diocese to repair and rebuild their schools, yields a unique opportunity for us to assist in Mississippi's long-term recovery."
Construction of the new St. Vincent De Paul School in Long Beach started in late March and the administration couldn't be more pleased. Dr. Mike Ladner, superintendent of education, described the experience of working with FEMA representatives "who reached out to guide the Diocese through the process" as a blessing. Scheduled to open in August 2008, St. Vincent will consolidate St. Paul in Pass Christian and St. Thomas the Apostle in Long Beach.
"The faith that is taught in the schools of the Diocese of Biloxi helped each educator and each child recover immediately after Katrina and that faith is still called on today. The children are in a safe, loving, nurturing environment and are coping magnificently," said Clark. "We see bright, wonderful things ahead as we strive to do the Lord's work. St. Patrick Catholic High School is opening in August 2007 and St. Vincent will open one year later. These are both multi-million dollar facilities that are the result of consolidation of schools and are being built with the assistance of FEMA funds."
The larger St. Patrick facilities will replace Mercy Cross Catholic High School in Biloxi, while also consolidating students from St. John Catholic High in Gulfport. It will be located more than ten miles inland of the old Mercy Cross site and will increase its capacity from about 300 to 600 students.
"We were pleased to work with FEMA and the Diocese to help students return to an environment that is familiar and where they can be among their friend...