By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator 

More than four decades ago, on a summer afternoon bookended by her sophomore and junior years in high school, Jeannine Cockerham joined a friend as they walked into the St. Gerard Majella Elementary School gym in Baton Rouge.  

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On a cold and rainy winter day, St. Gerard stepped off on its annual Mardi Gras parade. Photo courtesy of the Department of Archives | Diocese of Baton Rouge  

 

Little did she know a life-changing moment awaited on the other side of those doors. Cockerham spotted a boy she considered attractive sitting among the cheerleaders across the gym and asked her friend about possibly being introduced to him.  

Shortly after, she and Tony Cockerham went on their first date. Forty years and four children later, Redemptorist St. Gerard School and the shuttered Redemptorist High School continue to hold a memorable place in their hearts, a place where their four-decade odyssey was borne.  

“It’s a special place for us,” said Jeannine, who had to get a job at a nearby fast food restaurant to be able to attend Redemptorist High School her final two years since she was previously enrolled in public school and her father would not pay the tuition.  

She admitted she wanted to attend Redemptorist to keep Tony away from “another girl.”  

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St. Gerard’s football team gathers for a team picture. Many of those younger Wolves would go on to play for Redemptorist, which traditionally featured one of the more powerful programs in Louisiana.  Photo courtesy of the Department of Archives | Diocese of Baton Rouge 

 

“I grew up in this parish and was an altar boy (at St. Gerard Majella Church),” said Tony, who is considered a “lifer” because he graduated from St. Gerard and Redemptorist High School, which closed June 30, 2015.  

“I knew (Jeannine) was working at McDonald’s (to be able to attend Redemptorist),” he added with a smile. “This place has formed our life.”  

“Every time I come back it’s like coming back to see family.”  

The Cockerhams joined an estimated 350 alumni of St. Gerard and Redemptorist to celebrate the 75th anniversary of St. Gerard on Oct. 18. Bishop Michael G. Duca celebrated the anniversary Mass before former classmates and teachers gathered in front of the church for an afternoon of memory sharing, catching up and enjoying a jambalaya lunch prepared by the recently formed Knights of Columbus of the Ray M. Lorio Council #17544.  

“The school means quite a bit to me,” said Mary Ann Burton, who has been attending St. Gerard since the age of 10. “I grew up here and all my (four) children graduated from here. My husband also graduated (from Redemptorist).”  

Burton and her husband briefly moved away but when returning to Baton Rouge, attending St. Gerard was the only decision because, as she said, the parish “is home and family.”  

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Mardi Gras has always been a festive time at Redemptorist St. Gerard School. In this undated photo, students and teachers parade near the school. Photo courtesy of the Department of Archives | Diocese of Baton Rouge 

 

“The school is like a family,” acknowledged St. Gerard pastor Father Tat Hoang CSsR, who recently completed his first year in the parish. “I can see that the people who graduated from here have a very dear memory and connection with (St. Gerard and Redemptorist). Not just the sports but also education.  

“I can see a lot of successful graduates and alumni here.”  

Father Hoang said he was overjoyed with the turnout and found it personally rewarding.  

“Who am I? I am just an Asian, Vietnamese refugee priest but I am so blessed,” he said. “I am so proud of this school. I believe the reputation of this school still exists and that gives me even more hope.”  

In his homily Bishop Duca noted how much the country has changed and endured in the past 75 years, including pre Vatican II, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the Vietnam Crisis.  

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An estimated 350 people attended the Mass, which brought together alumni of St. Gerard School and Redemptorist High School. Photo by Richard Meek | The Catholic Commentator  

 

“How can you even begin to imagine how God works,” the bishop said, reminding parishioners that the church has lived 2,000 years and the message is the same. 

“The Holy Spirit is our greatest strength, especially as Catholics,” he said.  

Also during the day the gym was open, and it was where former St. Gerard and Redemptorist player Ted Lyles attempted to revive his once deadly jumper. A 1974 RHS grad, Lyles recalled how he and his Redemptorist teammates had keys to the gym and would spend all day during the summer honing their skills. 

“I was a Redemptorist graduate and anything that has to do with Redemptorist I try to come and be a part of it,” he said. “This place brings back great memories.”  

St. Gerard School was founded in September 1945 by the School Sisters of Notre Dame. At that time the office building of the United Gas Pipe Line Company served as a temporary school until the new combined church and school building was completed in 1946.   

The school began with grades one through eight, and each classroom could house 70-90 students. Enrollment for the 1945-46 school year was 293.  

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Former St. Gerard and Redemptorist High School basketball Ted Lyles took to the court where he once toiled to revitalize his sweet jumper from years ago. “This place brings back great memories,” he said. Photo by Richard Meek | The Catholic Commentator  

 

At the time St. Gerard was the only Catholic school within a 10-mile radius.  

During those early years, many of the children were from blue-collar workers and local business families.  

The cafeteria was constructed in 1953, the permanent convent was completed in 1955 and new classrooms were added above the cafeteria in 1956.  

Upon completion of the new church in 1957, the parish began to convert the first floor of the school building into classrooms, finishing in 1958.  

Enrollment reached its zenith in the 1960-61 school year with 2,124 students attending.  

The Sisters of Notre Dame left after the 1984-85 school year.  

The Redemptorist order of priests support the education and religious education of students still today.  

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Long-time St. Gerard Majella Church parishioner May Ann Burton reads the First Reading during the 75th Anniversary Mass of Redemptorist St. Gerard School on Oct. 18. Burton has been a parishioner at St. Gerard since she was 10 years old. Photo by Richard Meek | The Catholic Commentator 

 

When Redemptorist High School closed its doors, the incoming seventh graders joined the school for the 2015-2016 school year and the name was changed to Redemptorist St. Gerard a new chapter in the school’s storied history.  

As evidenced by the large turnout, a strong love for St. Gerard and Redemptorist tradition they established in north Baton Rouge remains alive.  

Enrollment at St. Gerard is also back on the rise, totalling nearly 180 students in the current school year.  

“It still brings back tears, great memories of this place,” Lyles said. “So many good stories.” 

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The recently formed St. Gerard Majella Knights of Columbus Ray M. Lorio Council #17544 prepared a jambalaya lunch, which those in attendance ate while catching up with former classmates at tables placed in front of the church. Photo by Richard Meek | The Catholic Commentator 

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