Cristo Rey  graduates  first class

By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator  

Where flood waters once threatened to wash away dreams, hope emerged under a brilliant sun seemingly beaming its approval.  

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Cristo Rey Baton Rouge Franciscan High School celebrated its inaugural graduating class with an outdoor ceremony. Smiles were evident as the graduates walked from the football field where a class photo was taken to the area where the cars were parked and family members awaiting.  Photo by Richard Meek | The Catholic Commentator 


Bookended by a catastrophic flood, 18 months in windowless classrooms and finally, the coronavirus pandemic, the inaugural graduating class of Cristo Rey Baton Rouge Franciscan High School celebrated in an emotional outdoor ceremony. Family members and friends, all in their automobiles, parked in front of the stage, the blaring sounds of horns expressing their congratulations and pride.  

“We are the resilient group; we persevered, did not quit and overcame,” salutatorian Bria Coleman said. “We started late (because of the flood of 2016) and ended early (caused by the pandemic) but God always has a plan. “The difficult times shaped us for who we are today.”  

Two weeks after Bishop Robert W. Muench cut the ribbon, the flood of 2016 not only left four feet of water in the buildings but an uncertain future as well.  

Students were transferred to the Bon Carre Business Center where students attended classes with no windows or even a playground facility.  

During the transition, the former Redemptorist High School campus was completely razed and modular buildings put in place. 

And the final ignominy came when the pandemic canceled much grander plans for the school’s inaugural graduating class. But working through a logistical labyrinth, the staff was able to stage an outdoor ceremony on a site where one could almost hear the laughter of former Redemptorist students, whose memories were honored during the ceremony. 

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Cristo Rey Baton Rouge Franciscan High School celebrated its inaugural graduating class with an outdoor ceremony that included family and friends being able to sit in their cars while the graduates walked across the stage to receive their diplomas. Photos by Richard Meek | The Catholic Commentator


“Today is hard to describe in words,” said Vic Howell, founding member of the original Cristo Rey and a driving force pushing the dream forward. 

Howell beamed with pride as he noted all 41 graduates will pursue a post-secondary education, with two-thirds of them accepted into four-year colleges and one-third attending two-year programs.

What some called an experiment nearly five years ago when the idea was first discussed, and others doubted along the way, had succeeded.  

“It’s amazing what the kids have done; amazing where they have come from,” he said. “This shows what can be done; this graduating class has pointed the way for the future.”  

Valedictorian Rakia Adams, who battled a serious health issue in her junior year, said “it’s been tough from the beginning.” 

“I did not think I would make it here, especially in this position,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “We were a handful but to the teachers and staff we will forever be grateful to you and an extended thanks to our corporate sponsors.”  

“I am so proud of each and every one of you; we are destined for greatness,” she told her classmates.  

“After all that we’ve been through I was happy that I finally did it,” Myliyah Jefferson said. “I learned you have to work with what you got, to stay positive and persevere.”  

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Rakia Adams tears up as she delivers an emotional and moving valedictorian address. 


Jefferson, who plans to pursue a nursing degree at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, said her Cristo Rey education has armed her with a confidence to succeed that she previously did not have.  

“(Cristo Rey) offered me a bright future and (the ability) to make a difference,” she said. “They taught me how to be mature. Our teachers and principal (Claire Willis) were amazing.”  

Willis told the graduates they were “making history. You are laying the foundation for the future, for others to follow.”  

Steps behind Willis, Cristo Rey director of admissions Erica Walker fought back her own emotions as she watched the graduates walk across the stage. Walker was there opening day, witnessed the carnage of the flood waters, endured 18 months trying to teach students in a business center and walked with them during their darkest days.  

And she was there when that same group of young freshmen who four years later had matured were awarded with a diploma that could be the key to unlocking obstacles to future success.  

“My emotions today are at 100,” Walker said. “Seeing these babies back in 2016, I could not fanthom walking across the stage today.  

“We experienced it all; just to see them graduate today, all my hard work and fussing with them was worth it.”  

“It’s worth it, it’s worth it,” she repeatedly emphasized. “We have definitely given them hope. We have grown beautiful women and beautiful men to become outstanding leaders for our community.  

“We did it. It paid off.” 

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Cristo Rey Class of 2020  

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 After receiving their diplomas, the excitement was overwhelming as graduates hugged each other and shared in the moment.  

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Principal Claire Willis presented the diplomas to the 41 graduates.  


Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady University held a drive-through diploma celebration May 16 for its graduating classes. Nursing and respiratory therapist seniors had a drive-thru celebration on April 27 when students graduated early to help with the pandemic.  Photo by Rachel Street | FranU 

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Faith Woods walks with her parents, Jewell and Victor Woods, after she picks up her diploma from St. Joseph’s Academy in Baton Rouge. SJA held an outdoor graduation ceremony for students and their parents, staged at intervals in order to meet social distance guidelines. Photo provided by Mindy Averitt | St. Joseph’s Academy 


Jaylon Wood, center, celebrates his eighth-grade graduation from St. Francis Xavier School in Baton Rouge with his parents, Carla and Jeremy Wood. Photo provided by Paula Johnson | St. Francis Xavier


Noah Bahlinger, a graduate of Catholic High School in Baton Rouge, celebrates receiving his diploma at home with with family, including his grandfather Harold Bahlinger, CHS Class of 1953. Photo provided by Richard Beaugh | Catholic High School