From seventh grade through my senior year in high school, I practically lived at Holy Cross School in the Lower Ninth Ward. Back then, Holy Cross was also a boarding school, and even though I was a "day student," I grabbed every excuse to stay overnight. I loved it that much; I didn't ever want to leave.
Some of us have been lucky enough to return and fall in love with the place -- and the surrounding neighborhood -- all over again. The nicest part about going back after a few years away is seeing the renovations that have taken place, particularly the old Victorian homes on Reynes Street across from the school.
My 11th-grade chemistry teacher, Charlie DiGange, graduated in 1964 and later taught at Holy Cross for 21 years before joining Loyola University's fundraising staff. Now he's back again as the school's headmaster. His best friend from high school, Barry Wilson, is the head football coach -- returning after years of coaching at the college level. Both tell me there's no place they'd rather be. I know how they feel; I chair the school's board of directors. We share a passion for the place. We're not alone.
Just as Holy Cross has been an anchor in our lives, so has it anchored the neighborhood.
"The neighborhood and Holy Cross School have had a partnership for more than 20 years," says Pam Dashiell, president of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association. "The school has done so much for the association and the neighborhood -- providing office space for community development corporations, providing moral and emotional support for all of us, being preservation-minded and helping us to encourage preservation-mindedness in the community."
Dashiell evacuated for Katrina but returned to find many residents eager to rebuild. No one, she says, wants to let go.
"It's a neighborhood of working people," she says. "They are resilient and goal-oriented and forward-looking and accepting. Everybody wants to come back. The insides of most houses have been trashed, but the outsides of almost all of them seem to be structurally sound. A lot of them are made of old barge board and cypress."
She rattles off names of longtime residents who are ready to return, then asks about the school: "We hope Holy Cross opens soon, because if it does, that means we can all get water and power and start moving back."
During Hurricane Betsy in 1965, Holy Cross sheltered a lot of Lower Nine residents. The all-boys school, which backs up to the Mississippi River levee, did not flood then. Rescue helicopters landed repeatedly in front of the gym, delivering hundreds of evacuees to the large, welcoming arms of legendary wrestling coach Brother Melchior Polowy, who oversaw shelter operations inside.
Holy Cross was not so lucky during Katrina. The gym, now named after Brother Melchior, has been condemned. The administration building, which dates from 1895, took 5 1/2 feet of water. But the old building, made of ageless St. Joe bricks, still stands -- as do the majestic oaks, several of which are more than a century old. Some of their limbs lie scattered about the "Holy Cross College" gazebo, a campus and neighborhood landmark that served as a streetcar shelter on St. Claude Avenue nearly 100 years ago.
DiGange recounts the story of a student -- a senior -- who had been hobbling on crutches for several weeks just before graduation day. He saw the kid one afternoon hanging onto one of the gazebo posts as his crutches lay at his feet. The kid was crying uncontrollably. DiGange ran to him, thinking he had fallen.
"Are you OK?"
"I'm fine," the kid answered through sobs.
"What's the matter?"
"I love this place so much," the kid answered. "I just want to hold onto it as long as I can before I have to leave."
- Broadmoor Design Group
- During Hurricane Betsy in 1965, Holy Cross School sheltered a lot of Lower Nine residents. The all-boys school, which backs up to the Mississippi River levee, did not flood then. It was not so lucky during Katrina.