‘We Moved Here For That School’
Parents, Alumni Startled By Sudden Proposal Of St. Louis High Relocation
Story By Brad Goins • Photos By Chad Moreno
For many parents in Lake Charles, Saint Louis Catholic High School is an integral part of daily life.
For these parents, what is almost as important as the school’s religious curriculum or its high standards of teaching is its location. It’s a location where generations of parents and students have gravitated to a form of education that was important to them.
These parents live where they live — in or near downtown Lake Charles — because they’ve made a conscious choice to live near St. Louis High. That means they’ve chosen against the frantic urban sprawl toward south Lake Charles and opted, instead, for the more traditional and easy pace of downtown and midtown life. They’ve chosen a pedestrian lifestyle over long commutes.
And now they’re afraid that the school they’ve largely centered their lives around is about to go away.
These concerned parents learned on Jan. 27 and 28 that the rebuilding advisory group of St. Louis Catholic had voted unanimously to suggest that a brand new high school be built far to the south at MorganField. The rebuilding group had been impaneled because Hurricane Laura had inflicted “devastation” on the high school that has long been located on Bank Street. (The precise circumstances of the impaneling will be detailed in further along in this story.)
Disgruntled parents, alumni and school supporters who were concerned about a potential move of the school began to circulate a petition. By Sunday, Jan. 31, there were 700 signatures. A copy of the petition was sent to Bishop Provost and the Board of Pastors of local Catholic schools.
The next day, at 6:30 pm, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lake Charles released a “St. Louis Catholic High School Rebuilding Statement.” While the statement contained scant information about how the decision to relocate St. Louis was reached, it did promise “these options will be discussed at community listening sessions in the coming weeks.”
Within a couple of days, the story was blowing up the Internet. A Facebook page titled Save St. Louis High School had acquired 900 members by 2:30 pm on Wednesday, Feb. 3. The next morning, at around 10 am, the name of the group was changed to Keep St. Louis High School on Bank Street. Obviously, the new name reflected a single-minded goal of keeping the school at its longtime location.
‘Transparency Is What We Need’
Why was the reaction to the proposed construction of the new school in South Lake Charles so fast and furious? Many felt that the news came out of the blue. However the rebuilding committee went about reaching its decision to build a new school in a new location, early reaction indicated that the decision should have been rolled out more slowly and publicly and with a more detailed explanation.
“The decision seemed to be announced without involving a lot of the alumni or neighbors,” Lisa Reinauer told Lagniappe. “It came as a shock.”
In a Feb. 2 Facebook post, Mark Judson claimed the decision “appeared to be an expedited effort to relocate St. Louis Catholic High School to Southeast Lake Charles.”
“When did this happen?” Reinauer asked. “People who should have been on this committee had no idea” what was being debated or decided. “We just didn’t know these conversations were happening.”
Reinauer conceded that “maybe this wasn’t all done in secret.” But, she said, “it has that appearance.
“Transparency is what we need …” said Reinauer. “Share those findings … Help us understand the decision-making process.
“It’s coming across as a done deal. That is really hard to accept.”
“No one will answer questions,” Mark Judson told Lagniappe. “There’s been no input.”
“I wonder how much of a voice we’re going to have,” said Reinauer.
Some voiced a concern that the opportunities for expansions of the St. Louis High sports programs at a new location may have played too large a part in the decision-making process.
“I would like to hear all the arguments” for the proposed move, said Reinauer. “Help us understand.”
‘Not Within The Scope Of The Committee’
A press release posted on the St. Louis Catholic Saints web page stated that in November, 2020, St. Louis High School was asked to submit a rebuilding plan to the Diocese of Lake Charles Recovery Team. The St. Louis advisory council established a committee that met on Nov. 20 and Dec. 2, 9 and 18.
The group of 16 unanimously recommended that St. Louis be rebuilt on MorganField property and presented its recommendation to the Board of Pastors and to Bishop Provost.
It was stated that one of the perks of relocation was that FEMA would pick up 75 percent of the cost of the project and perhaps as much as 90 percent.
Some of the concerns voiced by worried parties focused on the matter of what would be done with the current St. Louis High property if the school was moved. It should be noted that the statement on the St. Louis Catholic Saints page asserts that “the possible use of property is not within the scope of work of the Rebuilding Committee.” (You can find the full statement at slchs.org.)
‘We Moved Here For That School’
Time after time, concerned parties stated that they moved to their present home so that they could live near St. Louis High. At the same time, they said that by making that move, they automatically became participants in the traditional downtown lifestyle. Here is a representative sampling of these remarks:
• When I decided to move into Lake Charles and my daughter was going to be attending St. Louis High School, I only considered buying a home that was in close proximity to the school. So I bought a home downtown so that I could experience the downtown community. — Toni Stelly Hebert
• What do we do? We’re stuck in a situation. Our child will be ready for 9th grade in August … We moved here for that school. — Chad Moreno
• We purchased both of our homes downtown to be close to ICCS and then St. Louis … We wanted a Catholic education and downtown living. — Kerry Anderson
• Shortly after getting married and house-hunting, we had a decision to make — join the migration to the south of town or become part of those who wanted to carry on the tradition of restoring, revitalizing and living in old Lake Charles. We chose the latter, with no regrets. In the 25 years we’ve lived here, we’ve patronized downtown businesses, rebuilt our home multiple times (including now), participated in fairs and festivals, attended sporting events, used parks and libraries, attended church, worked and opened a business downtown. It would arguably have been much easier to migrate south. But again, we made a decision to be part of the fabric of a downtown pedestrian community. Our kids walked and rode bikes downtown, to ICCS, to SLC, and enjoyed the benefits of a pedestrian, downtown experience.” — Steve Belcher
A more direct and frustrated expression of concern about yet another landmark moving south and into the midst of the urban sprawl was posted by Hollie Huber George: “Why does EVERY SINGLE THING have to go to South LC???”
Some were disheartened by the prospect of a long daily South Lake Charles commute to school. “Way out south of town for us coming from north and west? … No way. Probably a 35 minute drive for all of us!” posted photographer Lindsey Janies.
All of these concerns were echoed by local historian Adley Cormier in a Feb. 4 Facebook post: “There is serious talk of ‘rebuilding’ St Louis school at a site south of I-210. Seems a bit premature to me. St Louis has a long and proud history at the Bank Street site, and it is about equidistant from ICCS, St. Margaret’s and the Cathedral. It seems to me to be a case of ‘while we are at it, let’s move,’ without a real discussion of what is to be done for the actual benefit of students and parents who may already be wondering how to get kids from one school to the other across town in the mornings and afternoons.”
Not all have had a negative reaction to the proposed move. In one contribution to the Facebook debate, Matt Soileau wrote, “wouldn’t it be nice to have adequate and ample parking, a brand new state of the art school with room for athletic facilities in the future?”
Many who question the decision to move St. Louis have been quite activist. In addition to the obviously effective work with the petition, Lisa Reinauer has suggested that those who would like to see St. Louis Catholic High School stay in its present location place blue and orange ribbons on their houses “as a sign of loyalty.” Furthermore, many hundreds of bright signs that say “SAVE THE TRADITION / KEEP OUR SAINTS DOWNTOWN” were quickly printed. The signs are now visible in a large number of yards around SWLA.
At press time, Tom Filo had announced that “a well-known local non-profit” would administer a new fund to rebuild St. Louis High “at the current site.”
All donations will be refunded if the high school does wind up being moved, and donations will be tax deductible regardless. The effort is looking for input on what a minimum donation should be; $500 and $1,000 have been suggested at present. More details should become available in coming days. Filo says “donations only go to keeping Saint Louis downtown …” You can follow developments on the Keep St. Louis High School on Bank St. page on Facebook.
No Stonewall From Diocese
The Diocese of Lake Charles has been quite responsive to requests from Lagniappe for information. Shortly after my request, I got a call from a congenial priest who told me that while he wasn’t familiar with the particulars of this case, he would find someone at St. Louis who was and have that person get in touch with me.
I received a call from Mia Touchet, principal of St. Louis Catholic High School. She informed me that the Diocese of Lake Charles and Bishop Provost had asked the St. Louis advisory group to assemble; to gather information; and, eventually, present facts to the bishop. (The initial impetus for the entire project was a directive from FEMA to let that organization know whether school and diocese leaders planned to rebuild the high school.)
The group focused on central questions related to the future of the school: What were the options? What would it cost to keep St. Louis where it was or to relocate? Surveys were undertaken to determine where St. Louis students lived and what their transportation needs — such as good roads — were.
The committee looked at more than 10 possible relocation sites (while also considering the option of keeping the high school where it was). Eventually, the MorganField property was selected. Data showed the relocation would cost less than remaining in place. And the 37.5-acre space would enable St. Louis to grow into a space comparable to those used by other area high schools. (Touchet noted that there are no plans to build a new football stadium right now.)
Among the questions committee members pondered were: “How can we best serve our entire population for the future? How can we grow?”
The group felt it had to gather this information before a dialogue with the larger community could occur. It was impossible to have a dialogue, they reasoned, when there was nothing to discuss.
It should always be kept in mind that what the committee recommended is nothing more than a recommendation. The committee’s findings were presented to the Board of Pastors of the Catholic Schools and to Bishop Provost. The Bishop will make the ultimate decision.
Regardless of what happens, Touchet says the Diocese plans to keep the land on which St. Louis rests. The Landry Gym will be restored regardless.
“We appreciate our families,” she told Lagniappe. “We would never want to divide our beautiful community.”
Touchet seems quite open to the idea of ongoing dialogue. And she speaks eloquently of her belief in the ability of Catholic education to eventually carry the day:
“We often speak about Catholic education as a gift — one that is lasting. It does not end when a student graduates. Their participation in this community does not stop at the end of the road. The gift grows, the community grows and when our children go out to become adults, our community and our legacy is their life and what they in turn give back to their community wherever they land.
“We are more than just a school; we are more than just a diocese. We are part of a great global network of Catholic Schools — bigger than ourselves — that are working together to instill our Catholic faith [and] values in the hearts of our youth, so that they will continue a life of faith and love — nurturing that gift forever and passing it down to their children.”
Opening The Lines Of Communication
As news of the committee’s recommendation gradually spread, many alumni who had limited information about the recommendations became active in the effort to get more communication with, and information from, the advisory committee. On Feb. 4, a number of concerned community members and alumni, one of whom was Chad Moreno, met with several members of the advisory committee.
They were told that regardless of the option that was chosen — stay or relocate — FEMA had required that a plan be presented to their organization by Dec. 25, 2020.
The citizens told committee members that they “felt completely left out of the process” and had “no representation.”
Moreno said that members of the advisory committee “did acknowledge that mistakes were made in assembling the committee as they only looked for expertise and didn’t have adequate community representation … “
Moreno admitted that “all committee members were volunteers that gave their time and want what’s best for the school, and even though we totally disagree with their recommendation, I think they truly believe in it.”
These committee members, he said, “are now fully aware there is opposition to moving the school.”
The concerned parties were told that the MorganField property was not donated — a rumor to that effect had circulated — and would have to be purchased.
Moreno believes, “It’s not a done deal as the bishop must make a decision on the school.”
Moreno left the meeting feeling that “everyone (Catholics/non-Catholics/community members) can … voice their opinions to the pastors [of the local Catholic schools] through letters, emails and phone calls. Father Long is the current rector for St. Louis.”
It may be that increased distribution of information and increased dialogue will smooth over some of the distrust or suspicion that has arisen. Many indicate that they are willing to think the matter over carefully if they can just have more information.
“I am glad there will be more discussion about how to best move forward,” posted Kelley Saucier. “Hopefully there is an option that makes sense financially and maintains the integrity of our St. Louis/Landry legacy in downtown Lake Charles.”