St. Joseph School/ Holy Ghost High School
Looking back at St. Joseph School
CAROLA LILLIE HARTLEY, SPECIAL TO GANNETT LOUISIANA
Published I1:55 a_m _ CT July 6, 2018
A drive down Prudhomme Lane in Opelousas takes you by the school we know as Opelousas Catholic. That school is recognized throughout the area for providing quality Catholic education to local and area students. But did you know before there was a school by that name, there were two other schools offering Catholic education to Opelousas children? One was called the Academy of the Immaculate Conception (AIC) and the other was Holy Ghost School. Opelousas Trivia today will focus on the origins of Holy Ghost School.
Following the Civil War during the period of Reconstruction, there were schools established in Opelousas dedicated to the education of African American children. The Freedman’s School and the Peabody School were two of those. But the first Catholic school in the area for African American students was St. Joseph’s Academy for Colored, established in 1874 by Father Gilbert Raymond.
According to newspaper accounts from the 1870s, plus information in the book “The History of the Catholic Church in Opelousas, LA”, published in 1915, the school was also called St. Joseph Convent and St. Joseph School. The brothers Father Gilbert and Francis Raymond, pioneers in the education of the town’s African American community, opened the school with the help of the Sisters of the Holy Family, who taught there.
In 1874, Mother Mary Josephine Charles, Superior General of the Sisters of the Holy Family, left New Orleans for Opelousas taking Sister Magdalene Alpaugh, Mother Elizabeth Bradley and Sister Cecilia Capla with her. It was a four-day journey, mostly by boat and some rail that was available at that time. The travelers landed in Washington, St. Landry Parish by way of Bayou Courtableau. The remainder of their journey was by horse drawn wagon to their convent building in Opelousas.
After they arrived the sisters immediately began visiting homes and places that held instruction classes for adults, not just in Opelousas, but the entire area of St. Landry Parish. They encouraged the parents they met during those visits to send their children to Catholic school. The following week St. Joseph School was opened and Mother Josephine returned to New Orleans.
The first classes at St. Joseph School were held in the basement of their convent building with some of the girl students boarding on an upper floor. The curriculum consisted of catechism and English, with French, piano, needlework and art added later. In August of 1881, a fire did some damage to the school, and money had to be raised to repair the building. Fundraisers were held in the community and the sisters were able to collect the funds necessary to repair the building.
During the remaining years of the 1880s decade the school continued to flourish with a larger number of students in attendance. In 1887 an awards ceremony for the school was held on July 13th at the Opelousas Social Club Hall. A large number of the town citizens attended as the ceremony highlighted … pupils participated in the exercises of the day, in dialogues, recitations and singing, with Miss Alice Chevis accompanying them on the piano.
The school continued to improve and do well with the support of the local community. Due to that success, St. Joseph School soon outgrew its building and was desperately in need of a new facility. After many years of fundraising by the sisters, and with the aid of Father Francois, in 1902 a two-room schoolhouse was erected.
St. Joseph School was originally for elementary work only, but special classes were eventually conducted for students who were able to do secondary work. In 1906, a special graduation ceremony was held for two students, Mary Payne and Corrine Simmons. In 1913, the second high school graduation was held. Also during that year, construction began on a new three-story school building. That building was dedicated in 1914, and opened for that school year.
In 1919, the Diocese of Lafayette established a new church parish in Opelousas dedicated to the African American population. The new church was named Holy Ghost Catholic Church with Father James Hyland as pastor. Father Hyland immediately combined St. Joseph School with the church, and in 1921 a high school was opened. Holy Ghost School held it first high school graduation in 1924; and in 1925, the State Department of Education approved the school and renamed it Holy Ghost Training School. That school was the first one in rural Louisiana to be granted state approval. Its scholastic standing was enhanced when the school led the state in scholastic achievement during its first three years, and again in 1933. During that year, the school attained full status as Holy Ghost High School.
In 1936, the school building erected in 1913-14 was moved to the north side of the church rectory, and used as the high school. In 1944 a kitchen and cafeteria were added. And just five years later, when the new Holy Ghost Church was erected in 1949, the old church was converted into an auditorium and elementary school. During that same year, the old church rectory, originally the home of Joel H. Sandoz, a pioneer newspaperman who owned the Opelousas Courier, was demolished to make room for the new church building. That old rectory building also served as part of the school for some years.
In 1955, the old Holy Ghost School building, originally built when it was known as St. Joseph School, was abolished, and a new school erected on the site, opening for the 1956 school year. In 1959, the last of the old school wood frame buildings was demolished, and a new Holy Ghost Elementary School was built and dedicated. Those buildings that housed the high school and elementary school after that time are the ones most of us remember as Holy Ghost School in Opelousas.
In 1970, Holy Ghost School and the Academy of the Immaculate Conception were consolidated and became Opelousas Catholic School that we know today. Catholic education continues in that building we drive by on Prudhomme Lane. But let’s not forget the story of St. Joseph School, that later became Holy Ghost School, and the important role it played in the education history of our town.