By Bonny Van

The Catholic Commentator

Bundled up in coats and sweatshirts over school uniforms, almost 475 students from kindergarten through eighth-graders gathered on sidewalks and second-floor balconies surrounding the courtyard at St. Jean Vianney School in Baton Rouge. 

With one collective happy and very loud chorus, the children sang “Happy Birthday” to Jeannette Abadie and Claire Landry, long-time volunteers at the school. Afterwards, the ladies blew out the birthday candles adorning their donut cake, shaped in the numbers 79 and 90 respectively.

Jeannette Abadie waves to students at St. Jean Vianney School in Baton Rouge as she and fellow volunteer, Claire Landry, celebrate their birthdays with the children. Abadie turned 79 on Nov. 29 and Landry turned 90 on Dec. 3. The former educators moved to Baton Rouge following Hurricane Katrina. Photo by Bonny Van | The Catholic Commentator

 

 

“Been volunteering at St. Jean Vianney since 2006,” said Landry, who turned 90 on Dec. 3. “All we’ve known, Jeannette and I, is education. It’s all we’ve known all our lives. It seemed like a comfortable situation to be in again.”

That situation presented itself after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. At the time, the ladies were living in St. Bernard Civil Parish. Abadie was working part-time in education while Landry was the guidance counselor at Archbishop Hannan High School in Mereaux. In the aftermath, everything was gone – homes, jobs, church parishes, schools and communities. 

It was the second time in the lives of these women that a hurricane had affected their lives. The first, Hurricane Betsy in 1965, is the storm that brought them together in the first place. 

As team teachers at an elementary school, Landry and Abadie shared some of the same students and “we got to be good friends.” They also became family, as evidenced in how they tell their story, helping each other along with facts.

“And the storm came,” explained Abadie. “I was living alone – my roommate had gotten married – and Claire said, ‘I think you better come to my house tonight’ because of the approaching storm.”

“Hurricane Betsy,” interjected Landry.

“She (Landry), her husband (Larry) and two kids and I evacuated to her parents’ home, which was sort of not too far away, and I never left because I started living with her parents,” recalled Abadie, who was 25 at the time. “They told me a young girl couldn’t go back and live alone in an apartment.”

“That was in those days and my dad couldn’t see her alone,” added Landry.

“They had a big house and my mother was still living (in Edgard) so they had to ask my mother permission so I could live with them,” said Abadie. “So, I became a part of their family.”

“My dad was old-fashioned,” Landry said. 

The women continued on their paths in education, eventually earning higher degrees and administrative positions. Abadie taught for many years in St. Bernard before earning a master’s degree in guidance counseling from Loyola University in New Orleans and becoming assistant principal at Andrew Jackson High School in Chalmette.

Landry earned a master’s degree in education from Loyola University, a doctor of education degree from University of New Orleans and a law degree from Loyola. She taught elementary school in St. Tammany and St. Bernard civil parishes; was principal of Andrew Jackson High School in Chalmette; was associate superintendent of elementary schools in East Jefferson and St. Bernard civil parishes for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. In 1978, Landry was elected to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, where she served for 15 years, including three as president.

Through the years, Abadie melded into family life with Landry and her siblings. After Landry’s parents passed away, Abadie was asked to move in with one of Landry’s sisters, who was newly widowed with grown children. 

Then in August 2005, life changed dramatically and traumatically for millions living along the coast of Louisiana and so it did for this family. Abadie, along with Landry, Landry’s husband and siblings evacuated and resettled in Baton Rouge, purchasing houses in the  neighborhood located in St. Jean Vianney Church parish. The women note the welcoming environment helped to ease the transition into a new life somewhat.

“I have to give people in the St. Jean Vianney congregation a thanks for making us feel comfortable in the church,” said Abadie. “We lost our church community, our neighborhood, our school community … so you have to start all over again. And the people reached out to use and welcomed us. I fell in love with the parish immediately and (pastor) Father Tom Ranzino was wonderful … ”

“Thank goodness,” interjected Landry.

“They helped us get our life back together,” added Abadie.

“Yes, because that was an awful feeling, when you move, you know nobody,” finished Landry.

One year after getting settled, Abadie said she and Landry were ready to give back in exchange for the help given to them. So, approaching school officials tto volunteer was the next likely step for the long-time educators. 

At first, the ladies were asked to help students who needed assistance with test taking. Eventually, they were asked to work two days a week from 9 a.m. –noon to help with more administrative duties such as copying paperwork, stuffing envelopes and filing. Though no longer working with students, the atmosphere still brings joy to both women.

“We get to see the students and hear them on the playground and all that is good music to me,” said Abadie.

“It is to me too because all I’ve ever known is education,” said Landry. “To me there’s nothing sadder than an empty schoolhouse.”

“They have been such an important part of our school community and the kids have really enjoyed getting to know them,” said St. Jean Vianney principal Wendy Ross. “This community just loves these ladies.”

Now, celebrating their birthdays together (Abadie’s birthday was just a few days earlier on Nov. 29) with the whole school joining in, Abadie and Landry were overwhelmed by hugs and stacks of handmade birthday cards from the children. They have been able to find a new life, while holding on to old connections. 

Every Tuesday, they gather with friends from St. Bernard Parish for lunch at one of five restaurants near their neighborhood. They both also have nieces and nephews who live in the Baton Rouge area.

“So we’ve got family and friends and co-workers – life is good,” said Abadie.

“I’m happy here now,” said Landry. “It was quite an adjustment. The Lord puts you where you’re supposed to be, I feel.”

“And I feel good comes from something bad, because look where we are,” noted Abadie.

“And Wendy (Ross) and the teachers here have been most welcoming,” finished Landry.