St. Joseph's Celebrating 150 Years Of Educating Young Women


BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Shortly after the Civil War, four Sisters of St. Joseph steamboated into Baton Rouge to run an orphanage.

Within a month of their arrival, Mother Superior Louise des Agnes Goiffon and Sisters Albina Thollot, Alphonsus de Ligouri Coudray and Marie Manning established the co-ed St. Joseph's Day School, which had 68 day students plus 12 orphans. The following year, the school's name was changed to St. Joseph's Academy for Young Ladies.

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Now, 150 years and almost 8,000 graduates later, the oldest high school in Baton Rouge is marking that milestone.

On Wednesday, St. Joseph's Academy celebrated the 1868 arrival of the sisters and establishment of the school at a 10 a.m. dedication ceremony for its new Student Center, the latest addition to its 15-acre campus bounded by Broussard Street and Kleinert Avenue. It's the first of several events planned throughout the 2018-19 school year.

"We've been working on this since 2015 knowing that, in our lifetime, this wasn't going to happen again," said board Chairwoman Suzie Toups Adler, who is also serving as chairwoman for the anniversary celebration.

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Other events include a special Mass at St. Joseph Cathedral on Oct. 21 to celebrate the arrival of the nuns and a gala at the Raising Cane's River Center on April 27 with special guest journalist and author Cokie Roberts.

Speakers will visit the campus each month, beginning Sept. 11 with SJA alumnae Sister Helen Prejean, author of the best-seller "Dead Man Walking." Other speakers will be Laura Schraff, author of the New York Times bestsellers "Invisible Thread" and "Angels on Earth"; Olympic gold medalist gymnast Mary Lou Retton; the Rev. Dr. Alan Hunt, best-selling author of "Confessions of a Mega-Church Pastor: How I Discovered the Hidden Treasures of the Catholic Church"; and political gurus James Carville and Mary Matalin.

"Our goal was to reach out to everyone who has been touched by the sisters and St. Joseph's Academy, not just alumnae but parents and the community," Adler said. "To reach out and get people re-connected . we want everybody to feel special."

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The relationship between the sisters and the community has been strong since the nuns' arrival 150 years ago.

According to the school history, the first person the sisters met in Baton Rouge after coming up from New Orleans on the steamboat Robert E. Lee was Mrs. Bahlinger and her daughter Josephine. Having never seen a nun before, little Josephine was frightened. But, school records say, she got over it and became the academy's first graduate. She taught at the school for many years before leaving to open her own private school.

The Josephine Bahlinger Award was established in 2016 to provide five $4,000 tuition awards to deserving freshmen.

The nuns quickly incorporated business into their education plan. In 1890, the boarding school, convent and orphanage moved to Church Street, and in 1891, under the leadership of Mother Albina, the sisters built the city's first steam laundry, at a cost of $4,000. The laundry provided much-needed financial support for both the school and orphanage, with the orphans dividing their day between working in the laundry and attending school. In 1910, the laundry was sold to the Kean family.

In 1940, when it came time to purchase the Broussard Street property, assistance came from Louis Gottlieb and Anthony Cazedessus. Steele Burden landscaped the new school grounds, which included the orphanage and convent. Flop Womack made a donation to add a cafeteria and for a new coat of varnish on all the desks. The school began classes at its present location in 1941. By 1944, the school had 456 students, and a year later, grades 11 and 12 were added.

Families supported the school with their money and their children.

In 1958, Mary Kay Hannaman became the first fourth-generation SJA graduate. Her family's first graduate was the school's first graduate, Josephine Bahlinger, who finished in 1877. Hannaman's lineage continued with Julia Mae Bahlinger Arbour in 1910 and Katherine Arbor Hannaman in 1934.

"I have a great respect for the people who were here long before my family," Adler said. "There a lot of old Baton Rouge names that jump out — how they helped the sisters and the sisters helped them.

"I learned a lot about my alma mater," Adler said. "As much as things change, they stay the same."

Some of those same things are the names of longtime Baton Rouge families. In 1968, the SJA Foundation was formed, and its first board members included Rivers Wall, Charest Thibaut Jr., Leroy Ward III, Frank Bologna, Louis Curet, Howard Reitz, William Gallmann, Leon Kleinpeter Jr., Janet Rhorer, Pat Tessier and Sue Turner.

"We're excited to celebrate this milestone anniversary, and we're just as excited to continue to offer opportunities for our young women as they prepare for their futures in the global marketplace," said SJA President Jan Rhorer Breen, herself an alumna.

Breen became president of the school in 2011, and Stacia Andricain was appointed principal in 2017.

Today, the academy excels with its technology immersion program, but the school has always seemed to be on the cutting edge.

The first telephone was installed in 1898, electricity in 1920 and team sports in 1925 (volleyball and basketball). The school was integrated in 1964 without incident when four African American girls, Rosalie and Glenda Darensburg, Elaine LaCour and Judy Lyons, transferred from St. Francis Xavier School. Six years later, with the closing of its kindergarten, SJA became an all-girls school. The elementary grades were phased out by 1977, and the Children's Home closed in 1985.

In academics, SJA has blazed a path, recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence by the U.S. Department of Education four times — 1991, 1996, 2002 and 2016.

In 1997, the school received $1 million from the Pennington Family Foundation to help build a science center, and in 2015, the Andrea Clesi McMakin STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) Lab opened. Students won the Shell STEM Showdown and $3,500 in 2016, and last year placed first in the Region VII Louisiana Science & Engineering Fair at LSU.

Under the leadership of Sister Judith Brun, who served as principal for 25 years, the school charged into the computer era, going paperless beginning with faculty in 1998.

Upon winning the 2002 Blue Ribbon School honor, which recognizes schools that provide a challenging curriculum and excel in academic leadership, teaching and teacher development, Brun noted that significant reforms had been made at the school.

"It's been a shift from teaching for recall to teaching for understanding," Brun said then, noting St. Joseph's redesigned its course offerings around a program that requires a laptop for each student and wireless connectivity throughout campus — a technological focus that jibed with the criteria for the award.

In the 2006-07 school year, SMART boards, which allow teachers and students to control computers with touch screens, were purchased for the school. Two years ago, SJA was asked to participate in AP Capstone, an innovative diploma program that aims to develop skills critical to college success — research, collaboration and communication. In 2018, SJA won the 12th annual Louisiana High School Technology Challenge.

"As we move forward, we stand on the foundation, vision and mission of the Sisters of St. Joseph to educate young women as responsible and unifying members of the world community," Breen said.

– by Pam Bordelon, AP reporter

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