Social Justice Philosophy Plays out in the Wake of Gulf Hurricanes

By Wirth, Eileen | Momentum, February/March 2006 | Go to article overview

Social Justice Philosophy Plays out in the Wake of Gulf Hurricanes


Wirth, Eileen, Momentum


Strake Jesuit High School and New Orleans Jesuit High School live the motto of "Men for Others"

Hurricane Katrina's victims included many Catholic schools in the Gulf region. All have stories to tell of tragedy, heroism, faith and recovery. This article reports on just one of the many schools affected by the hurricanes. New Orleans Jesuit High School suffered more than $5 million in flood damage, since repaired. Like thousands of other New Orleans young people, students at Jesuit High School struggled to continue their education. Many of them received extraordinary help from fellow Jesuit schools, especially Strake Jesuit College Preparatory School in Houston.

Darkness had fallen over Houston hours ago but Strake Jesuit College Preparatory School's campus was all lit up. Recently installed floodlights even illuminated an intramural sports field outside the cafeteria. In Jesuit Brother Larry Huck's theology class it was business as usual.

No, it wasn't.

The sweatshirts said "New Orleans Jesuit" or "Blue Jays," not "Strake Jesuit Crusaders." Students had eaten dinner, not lunch, in the cafeteria. Most would go home to host families, not their parents. Father Mark Thibodeaux, SJ, pastoral minister at Strake Jesuit, saw only strange faces when he roved the hallways. Those faces were counting the days until Thanksgiving break, longing for what they would not find-"New Orleans as it was before Katrina,"-as one senior said.

The New Orleans Jesuit students may have been homesick, but they also were the grateful beneficiaries of a remarkable joint effort of Strake Jesuit High School and 34 of their own faculty members: a Sunday-Thursday evening "school within a school" that served a peak of more than 400 displaced youths.

For Strake Jesuit it meant creating the parallel high school program in a matter of days and sharing its facility with outsiders. For New Orleans Jesuit faculty it meant teaching in Houston for a semester, often separated from their families or delaying rebuilding their own lives. Strake Jesuit families housed many of the New Orleans students and teachers.

"I was awestruck by this whole thing," said Kathleen Juhas, normally New Orleans Jesuit's assistant principal for academics, who supervised the program. "The Jesuits have a philosophy of 'Men for Others' but they don't just say it, they live it." "Men and Women for Others" is a central tenet of Jesuit social justice philosophy. The Strake Jesuit-New Orleans Jesuit Hurricane Katrina partnership is a superb example of this philosophy in action.

"This is unprecedented, to my knowledge," said Gavin Atilano, a New Orleans Jesuit senior.

Responding to the Emergency

When Hurricane Katrina hit, Strake Jesuit had no idea it soon would be opening a parallel school, said Father Daniel Lahart, SJ, president. It was already at capacity with 870 students and had a freshman waiting list.

Then the heartrending calls started coming to the admissions office. Soon there were 50, then more than 90. The pleas for help just kept coming.

"We started talking about what if we couldn't just fit the students in," said Father Lahart. "We had rented extra buildings." Those eventually became administrative and faculty offices for New Orleans Jesuit (dubbed "Katrina" and "Rita"). There was even talk of letting students sit on the floor if need be.

By the end of the week that Katrina struck, Strake Jesuit faced serving more than 200 New Orleans students; numbers continued to grow, especially after New Orleans Jesuit's Web site announced that Strake Jesuit's would accept hurricane transfers. Students emailed scattered friends about their plans to attend Strake Jesuit, attracting still more applicants.

Father Lahart determined that "if we had 200 kids, we could run a school within a school," so he contacted the Jesuit provincial office and asked for the teachers this would require. Father Anthony McGinn, SJ, president of New Orleans Jesuit, encouraged both Jesuit and lay teachers to go to Houston. …

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