By Pamela Seal
Diocese of Lake Charles
National Catholic Schools Week is the perfect time to celebrate the gift of a Catholic education. Now entering its 49th anniversary year, the annual weeklong observance will be January 29 through February 4.
It has been more than 210 years since Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton established the nation’s first Catholic school in 1809. Many families in the Diocese of Lake Charles still recognize that gift and have been choosing Catholic schools for multiple generations.
“There is a long, rich tradition of Catholic education in Southwest Louisiana, with the first Catholic school built in 1882 (St. Charles Academy), followed by an all-boys school in 1902,” according to the Diocese of Lake Charles’ Cognia Candidacy Review Report, November 2022.
Today, schools in the Diocese of Lake Charles include St. Louis Catholic High School, Immaculate Conception Cathedral School, St. Margaret Catholic School, and Our Lady Queen of Heaven Catholic School, all in Lake Charles; Our Lady Immaculate Catholic School in Jennings; and Our Lady’s Catholic School in Sulphur.
Four generations at OLI
Our Lady Immaculate Catholic School has been part of Darla Hine Bertrand’s family for four generations since it opened in 1958. Darla’s great-grandchildren are now a part of that legacy.
The roots go deep to continue building on a strong foundation that will last for years to come.
“My grandfather instilled the importance of embracing the Catholic faith, which impacted my mother’s decision to send us to OLI,” said Darla, who lists several benefits of Catholic schools.
“We are given the opportunity to express our Catholic faith as it is included in the educational process along with discipline, manners, respect, responsibility and accountability,” she said. “We are prepared mentally, emotionally and spiritually to handle life’s challenges.”
After Darla’s children started school, she volunteered for many years before becoming employed in 1990 as athletic coordinator and P.E. aide.
“I felt that my vocation was to return to my alma mater and devote my time helping future generations to become good Catholic, Christian members of society,” she said.
Family tradition at ICCS
The Solari family can trace their Catholic education back to 1934 with first-generation Sherman J. Solari Jr. starting at St. Charles Academy for grades 1-2, before transferring to Landry Memorial in 1936 and remaining there through 1945.
Between the years of 1966-1989, Sherman and his late wife, Joyce, provided a Catholic education for their three children — Mike, Tom, and Suzy — who attended Immaculate Conception Catholic School and St. Louis Catholic High School. Their daughter, Suzy, now teaches third grade at ICCS.
The tradition of Catholic education continued with Sherman’s grandchildren between 1996-2014.
The patriarch said he is reminded of the sacrifices the Religious Brothers made to give him the education that they did.
“In later years, my Catholic education helped me to move forward through the memory of their sacrifices,” said Sherman. “A Catholic school plants a seed for growth in your faith. It places you among people who think the same and gets parents involved in the Church.”
Attending Mass as a school community is one thing Suzy missed most after graduating from St. Louis in 1992. It is one reason the Masses at Immaculate Conception Cathedral School are so special to her now.
“The Sacraments help us to reflect on God’s will in our lives. It was the call of the Holy Spirit that led me to return to ICCS as a Catholic educator, and my 16 years teaching have been a true blessing,” she said.
Suzy recognizes the privilege of being able to talk about God and to call on Him at any moment in a Catholic school environment.
“I treasure the many holy moments that I share with my students and my ICCS family. This is the gift of a Catholic school,” added Suzy.
OLQH legacy since 1965
Gloria C. Hebert’s eight children were the first of three generations in her family to attend Our Lady Queen of Heaven Catholic School between 1965-1981. Her grandchildren followed from 1991-2016, and her great-grandchildren began their education in 2018. In total, 17 students from the Hebert family have spanned 58 years.
The matriarch’s husband Roland J. Hebert died when their youngest son was 4 years old. Despite this hardship, Gloria — who was 35 years old at the time — chose to keep all her children in Catholic school because it was so important to her.
Being part of a close-knit community with lasting friendships has impacted the life of Gloria, now 90, and her family.
“Our children have been able to develop a deep-rooted understanding of the Catholic faith that they can continue to foster and share with their families,” the 90-year-old matriarch said.
Gloria said she appreciates the morals and values that are incorporated through religion and education.
“Children are taught a consistent message of loving Christ and knowing His word and guidance,” she said. “Catholic teachers bring light to each child’s day with prayer, learning, and reflection.”
Six decades at SMCS
Carla Fontenot David, the oldest of nine children, was the first of three generations of Nolan and Norma-Dean Fontenot to begin a legacy at St. Margaret Catholic School in 1963. Now, her youngest sibling, Daniel Fontenot, has two of his three children enrolled.
From the first generation to the third, there has been at least one Fontenot every year for the past six decades.
Daniel said a Catholic education is important to him for several reasons.
“Integrating a great academic education with a faith-based curriculum provides a solid foundation in a world today that has more questions than answers,” he said.
Daniel added to that, “Smaller student-to-teacher ratio, teachers who go the extra mile and genuinely care about your children, and an atmosphere where everyone from the higher grades to the lowest grades know your name and greets you with a smile also carry value.”
Through daily themes and various events, the six Catholic schools — with a combined enrollment of 2,308 students — will focus on the value Catholic education provides to students and its contributions to our local communities, state, and nation.
To highlight Catholic Schools Week, Bishop Glen John Provost will be the celebrant for a school Mass for St. Louis Catholic High School seniors and eighth graders at 9:00 a.m. on Wednesday, February 1, in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.