|Theresa Taylor and her husband John are pictured with three of their children, Indya, left, Elijah, and Yasmin. Oldest son Zachery is not pictured. Theresa Taylor said it was “a godsend” for her to be able to enroll Zachery at Cathedral Academy after Hurricane Katrina. At that time, the school was run by the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation, who welcomed children from all backgrounds to attend the school, tuition free.
After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans East resident Theresa Taylor was working hard to hold her family of six together, “trying to face that new normal,” of dealing with a severely flood damaged home and finding childcare and schools for her children, then ages 1, 2, 4 and 9.
“I was driving around each day, trying to stay positive, but I was emotional all the time,” she said.
When she arrived at Cathedral Academy in the French Quarter, she was welcomed by the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation, and was told her son could start right away in the fourth grade.
“The sisters were like a godsend,” she said. “It was a weight lifted off our shoulders.”
As Taylor reflects on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, she still gets a little choked up when she talks about Cathedral Academy and the Sisters. “The sympathy they gave to our family, it was a beautiful experience,” said Taylor, a native New Orleanian and the daughter of Honduran immigrants.
Before the hurricane, Taylor, her husband John and their four children were living in the modest New Orleans East neighborhood, “just trying to make ends meet, just trying to live life.” Then the storm hit and the rains came, filling their house with water and leaving behind layers of mold and muck. “It set us back,” she said, “but a glimmer of light came with the school.”
When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in late August 2005, more than 1,800 people died; survivors had their lives irrevocably altered. Today, many New Orleans neighborhoods are back, alive and vibrant, while other pockets of the city remain eerily unchanged since the storm.
|At left, Indya Taylor is pictured with Yvette Endom, who established the PLEASE Foundation after Hurricane Katrina to assist low income students get scholarships to Catholic high schools in New Orleans. The PLEASE Foundation has supported children from Cathedral Academy, including the Taylor children, for years.
There’s no one narrative for post-Katrina New Orleans, or consensus on whether the city’s residents are better off since the storm. But one thing is generally true – the low income residents who lived in some of the hardest hit areas have faced a much steeper climb to rebuild their lives after the storm. Katrina did not provide the poor with an automatic springboard to a better life, but for a lucky few, the storm did open up a path to a better future. Theresa Taylor feels like she is one of the lucky ones.
A blessing from a curse
When Hurricane Katrina hit, Sister Mary Rose Bingham, O.P., and Sister Mary Cecilia Goodrum, O.P., both former principals of Overbrook School in Nashville and now at Aquinas College, were serving at Cathedral Academy in New Orleans, as principal and junior high teacher, respectively. They, along with two other Dominican sisters and the lay faculty of Cathedral Academy, worked diligently to become the first school, public or private, to open in Orleans Parish after the storm.
“If they were a child and they were breathing, they could come to school,” Sister Mary Rose told the Tennessee Register in early 2006. “The parents were so desperate and so relieved.”
Many families were living on cruise ships or in FEMA trailers, and had been shuffled around to several cities and schools in the months after Katrina.
In the immediate aftermath of the storm, the Archdiocese of New Orleans re-opened as many schools as possible, allowing children from all backgrounds to attend tuition-free.
One good thing that came out of the turmoil of the hurricane was “being able to offer religious instruction to children who had never had it before. … It was amazing to watch them soak it all up like sponges,” Sister Mary Cecilia told the Tennessee Register in 2006.
Taylor, whose family attends historic St. Augustine Church, the oldest African-American Catholic parish in the country, wanted her son to attend a Catholic school before the storm, but couldn’t afford it. Being able to get her son into a Catholic school and receive the sacraments was a blessing that came out of the curse of Katrina, she said. The storm “brought some positive things into our lives.”
One of those things was the PLEASE Foundation and the woman behind it, Yvette Endom. A native New Orleanian with a master’s degree in clinical psychology and a big heart for at-risk children, Endom witnessed the devastating effects of the storm and wanted to do something to help those children, something that “would give them peace of mind with all the other chaos in their lives.”
After being displaced from her Old Metairie home for nine months after Katrina, Endom returned, ready to get to work. She established the PLEASE Foundation to provide mentorship and scholarships for inner-city children to attend Catholic schools in New Orleans.
When she set out to find the students who would benefit from PLEASE (People Leading Educational and Spiritual Excellence), she found Cathedral Academy, and like Taylor, was struck by the safe and loving environment created by the Dominican Sisters there. “Right away, I knew that was my school,” Endom said.
|Sister Mary Rose Bingham, O.P., former principal of Cathedral Academy in New Orleans and now Director of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd at Aquinas College, visits with one of her Cathedral Academy students in early 2006. Cathedral Academy was the first school to open in Orleans Parish after the storm, and temporarily experienced a surge in enrollment. However, the Archdiocese of New Orleans shuttered the school in 2013, citing falling enrollment and aging facilities. Tennessee Register file photo by Theresa Laurence
She first started working with the school in 2007 and was there every day for the next six years. One of the families she linked up with early on was the Taylors. The PLEASE Foundation sponsored Theresa Taylor’s oldest son Zachery while he attended Brother Martin High School and continues to sponsor daughter Indya while she attends St. Mary’s Dominican High School. Indya dreams of working for the FBI, and “she’s on the honor roll, and it’s not an easy school,” Taylor says proudly. Zachery graduated last year and is now attending junior college and working part-time.
Taylor credits Cathedral Academy with providing her family with stability when their lives were in upheaval, living in a cramped rental near the Quarter that first winter after the storm, with no heat or hot water, trying to piece their lives back together.
That’s why Taylor was so disappointed when the Archdiocese of New Orleans announced it was closing the school at the end of the 2012-2013 school year. “We fought the best way we could to keep it open, because it benefitted so many kids,” Taylor said.
Despite its almost 100 year history, last ditch fundraising efforts and pleas from Cathedral families, the archdiocese followed through with its plans to close the school, citing falling enrollment and aging facilities. Cathedral Academy is one of more than 20 schools that the Archdiocese of New Orleans has shuttered since 2003. In 2013, the archdiocese released a strategic plan for its schools, which continue to serve approximately 38,000 students.
Even though Cathedral Academy closed in 2013, that did not end Endom’s, Taylor’s or the PLEASE Foundation’s affiliation with the Dominican sisters. Endom, whose daughter attends Camp Marymount in Fairview, Tenn., visits the Sisters every summer and always returns with pictures to show the children in New Orleans, who haven’t forgotten them.
“They love seeing the pictures. … They always ask if the Sisters are coming back,” Endom said.
In a questionnaire she gives to all graduating seniors, Endom asks what impact the Sisters had on their lives, and “they all have something to say. No one leaves that question blank.” Often, the students talk about how the Sisters have shaped their moral and spiritual outlook, Endom said.
‘A fight to make things better’
Today, Taylor still feels a great fondness for the Dominican Sisters who took her in during one of the most vulnerable times of her life, and allowed her to connect with Endom and PLEASE. “They were like angels on earth,” she said of the women who helped lay out a new path for her children.
|Theresa Taylor poses for a photo with Sister Mary Andrew Hession, O.P., a former principal of Cathedral Academy, in front of St. Mary’s Dominican High School in New Orleans, where Taylor’s daughter now attends.
Taylor, the primary caregiver for her elderly mother and aunt, as well as her four children, has a full plate, but she has also become more civically engaged since Hurricane Katrina. The experience “encouraged me to get involved in my neighborhood,” she said.
She and her neighbors have been fighting every step of the way to rebuild after Katrina. They’ve faced shoddy workmanship and petty theft; they’ve lobbied hard to get everything from street signs to playgrounds back in their community after the hurricane.
While many residents have returned and rebuilt in New Orleans East, there’s still a glaring lack of shopping options in her neighborhood, Taylor said. “Our community deserves better.”
She vows to remain an active neighbor, ready to report drug dealers and other criminals. “We’re not going to put up with foolishness around here,” she says.
Taylor loves New Orleans and never thought of leaving after Hurricane Katrina. “It’s a beautiful city despite the craziness that goes on,” she said. But “it is a fight to make things better.”