By Bonny Van

The Catholic Commentator  

On a quiet street in Baton Rouge, not far from a busy, elevated section of I-10, St. Francis Xavier School in Baton Rouge stands as a testament to time: past, present and future.  

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Students at St. Francis Xavier School in Baton Rouge work on the summer math program in 1987. Photos provided by the Archives Department of the Diocese of Baton Rouge

 

This is the little school “that could” and has for 100 years.

On Jan. 12, St. Francis Xavier Church and School kicked off its year long centennial anniversary with a Mass celebrated by SFX graduate Bishop John H. Ricard SSJ, Superior General, the Josephites, the Society of St. John of the Sacred Heart, and a jazz brunch at the Catholic Life Center. The milestone is being marked as an extension of the church’s centennial celebration in 2019, with the same theme, “Through Trials and Tribulations by God’s Grace We Triumph.”  

“There have been a number of times when the school almost closed but then the church parishioners and the Holy Family Sisters rallied around and kept the school open,” said pastor Father Ed Chiffriller SSJ.  

The school dates to 1881 when the Holy Family Sisters founded St. Mary’s School for Negro Girls at the site of the Main Post Office on Florida Street. According to documents from the Archives Department of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, the sisters were forced to leave because of prejudice.  

The Sisters of St. Joseph stepped in and ran the school from 1882 – 1895 and with the financial help of Mother Catherine Drexel of Philadelphia, the Sisters of St. Joseph transferred the property back to the Holy Family Sisters.  

The sisters established Holy Family Academy, a co-ed school for grades one through 12 and also cared for boarders and orphans. By 1919, the academy was sold the money from the sale was used to build a parochial school at St. Francis Xavier Church.  

The school opened its doors on Sept. 20, 1920 and high school classes were added, but lack of space forced the closing of the high school department in 1939. Sixteen years later, a high school was built for 200 students, but the state bought the building in 1961 and tore it down to build the I-10 interstate system.  

Two years later, St. Francis Xavier School built a new school, one that stands today as a proud monument of perseverance.   

Sister Rosalind Barbeneaux of the Sisters of Holy Family, taught at SFX from 1982 – 1983. She returned in 2016 and now teaches alongside one of her former students, Melonie Stewart, who was also selected as the school’s Distinguished Graduate this year. 

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  Sister Patricia Williams of the Sisters of Holy Family seen outside of St. Francis Xavier School in Baton Rouge  

 

“We’re like one big family,” said Sister Rosalind. “It’s nice. Basically, the school has not changed. We still have that atmosphere of loving and caring for each other. Even though most of the kids are not Catholic, they love to participate in the weekly Mass. It’s amazing and it’s so inspiring to me.”  

According to principal Paula Johnson, students at SFX come from “17 different zip codes.” And with no bus system, it means a big commitment on the part of parents to bring their children to school.  

“We have very few community children, they come from all around,” said Johnson. “Their parents bring them because they want to be here.”  

Along with its strong history, the school carries a legacy with many church parishioners who are graduates of SFX along with parents and grandparents. That “family connection,” according to Father Chiffriller, provides support for the school.  

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 Members of the SFX drill team in 2000.  

 

He recalled his first year in 2011 when enrollment was at 85. A year earlier, the school nearly closed. In 2012, with the Louisiana Scholarship Program available for students in failing public schools, enrollment more than doubled to 180.  

Programs at the school continue to demonstrate a thriving environment for students. A literacy fair was held in the fall and a science fair is scheduled in the spring for all students.  

Students also participate in the D.A.R.E. program and Youth Legislature program. There are three boys’ basketball teams, a cheerleader squad and a girls’ volleyball team which was added this year. Students are also involved in student council, Beta Club and community service by helping to maintain an historic cemetery near the school.  

The goal now, according to Father Chiffriller, is to continue to grow enrollment from the current 140 students and to continue improving the academic program, which recently added more computer labs for a total of five and has implemented the STREAM (Science, Technology, Religion, Arts and Mathematics) program.  

“I talk to the kids and part of the student council responsibilities is setting goals,” said Johnson. “It’s quite busy around here all the time. There’s never a dull moment.”  

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 Open House at SFX, 1978.  

 

“The Diocese of Baton Rouge has been blessed by the good work at St. Francis Xavier School for the past 100 years,” said Dr. Melanie Palmisano, superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Baton Rouge.  “The seeds of knowledge, wisdom and understanding that have been planted during the past century have blossomed in individuals, the community and the church.  We look forward to continuing the growth in educational ministry at SFX into the future.”  

To mark the school’s 100-year anniversary, Johnson has been reaching out to graduates for photos to share with students. Hallways at the school are lined with enlarged photos of black and white portraits, some in period dress common in the late 1800s. Basketball teams, cheerleaders, students working in classrooms, graduating seniors and more depict a rich history of the school, reminding current students who walk past the photos on their way to class that they are also part of that legacy that will hopefully continue on for another 100 years.  

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A student visits with the principal at Open House, 1978.  

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 SFX students learn about artifacts from Africa, 1987.  

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 Sister Rosalind Barbeneaux, of the Sisters of Holy Family, joins SFX students during Mass on Jan. 12, celebrating the school’s centennial anniversary. The Mass was followed by a brunch at the Catholic Life Center in Baton Rouge.  Photo by Bonny Van | The Catholic Commentator 

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SFX students visit a pumpkin patch in 2007.  

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 Students take time out from learning to spend time reading, 1975.  

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Student participate in a program for Black History Month in 2005.