Story By Beth Donze, Clarion Herald
Photos By Frank J. Methe
More than two dozen graduates of Catholic elementary and high schools were recently honored as “Distinguished Alumni” at a brunch and award ceremony at St. Philip Neri’s parish center. After an opening prayer, Archbishop Gregory Aymond thanked the honorees, who were nominated by their school communities, for witnessing to the values of Catholic education into adulthood.
“A tree shows that it is a healthy tree by the fruit that it bears,” Archbishop Aymond said, thanking the assembled Catholic school ambassadors. “You are distinguished as you go about your life. You speak about the Lord; you speak about Catholic education,” he said.
“Thank you for that light; thank you for continuing to witness; thank you for seeing the benefit of Catholic education.”
Dr. RaeNell Houston, Catholic schools superintendent, encouraged the honorees to look for opportunities to share “holy moments” with everyone they encounter. These holy moments might be simply giving someone a smile, a listening ear during their times of grief or pointing out the lessons of hope embodied by Christ in the Gospels, she said.
“When we share these holy moments, we become more like Christ, and we become stronger in our faith,” Houston said.
Reflections from six of the honorees begin below. Please see below for the complete listing of this year’s distinguished alumni, all of whom were chosen by leaders at their respective alma maters.
Gina Duplessis, Visitation of Our Lady Elementary
I spent grades 1-8 at Visitation of Our Lady in Marrero and started school there the first year it was open. In those early years, there was only one main building, and they kept adding classes on.
I graduated in 1977, went on to Immaculata High (now the Academy of Our Lady) and was well prepared for high school.
At Visitation, we were taught by the School Sisters of Notre Dame. My classmates and I still remember their little quirks. One nun had a psoriasis problem and was always scratching. It’s funny what you remember from childhood. We wore the little beanies on our heads when we went to Mass.
I loved Visitation School so much, I sent my own children there, and now my grandchildren go there. It’s like a huge family community. I’ve been involved at Visitation my whole life, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything – the values and the community!
Aimee Bercegeay Gardner, St. Edward the Confessor Elementary
I have nothing but fond memories of St. Edward the Confessor School. It was hard, but it prepared me for high school and beyond.
Sister Mary DeLourdes Charbonnet was our principal. I specifically remember her leading the school and always being with the children. Sister had total control of the school. We could tell that she was there for us, and we didn’t have to worry about anything – she was taking care of us. She was very personable, with both the kids and the teachers.
Sister wanted a school where everyone would succeed – students of all abilities. The curriculum she gave to the school was an excellent one that prepared me well for my high school years at Dominican.
Our faith formation was also excellent. Sister Mary DeLourdes taught second-grade sacraments, and the priests would often be with us on the playground. We saw them as good role models and not standoffish.
In addition to attending Mass weekly and having Masses on all the big feast days, St. Edward School has always been a place of prayer. Prayer was said at the beginning and end of the day, before and after lunch and at the beginning of religion class. Sister used to say, the very reason for the school was religious formation – yes, our academics were great, but the reason for our school was religious formation.
One memory in particular stands out: My mother died when I was in sixth grade, and the teachers all banded together to help our family. The bus drivers picked us up directly from our house so we didn’t have to walk to the bus stop when my mother was sick. Our teachers came to her wake and her funeral, and they knew from then on to look after us.
Cheryl Ross Brown, St. Mary’s Academy
St. Mary’s Academy and the Sisters of the Holy Family have been part of my life since childhood. My late father was on the board, and my family helped them when they had the boarding school for the girls. So it wasn’t even that my parents had to choose a high school for me – I wanted to go to St. Mary’s Academy!
While I was growing up, the sisters would come to my house. They were part of our family. One of the sisters would go fishing with my father. Another sister would come over and make beignets and calas, a type of fritter made with rice.
At St. Mary’s Academy, the sisters taught us to be a whole person. It wasn’t just about the academics. It was how to be a young woman, how to be a Christian woman, how to give back to the community. They developed us spiritually, emotionally and intellectually, and I’ve carried all of those skills and attributes that the sisters showed us. They were my role models.
Another thing about the sisters is that they did everything. They taught me to know that the world was my oyster! The sisters were the CEOs, they were the accountants, they were counselors, they were janitors. They were everything! They showed me what it was to be a strong black woman in society.
So, when I graduated from St. Mary’s in 1978, I was prepared for anything, and I sent my daughter there.
Because of the sisters, I’m not intimidated by new challenges that crop up in my life. The sisters were fearless and they were faithful. They also showed me the power of prayer. It would be storming, and if there was bad weather forecasted for a function, the sisters would pray for the rain to go away – and it would go away!
Jeff Lionnet, St. Catherine of Siena Elementary
My elementary school principal, Sister Imelda Moriarty, was a major influence in my life. One thing you could count on with Sister Imelda is that when you walked into a room she knew your first name, your last name, she knew both your parents and she knew everybody in your family. That is very powerful in the life of a young person.
In terms of academics, I remember the nurturing that all my teachers gave to me. I wasn’t the best student, but they really took their time to develop my education. Their preparation was excellent, and I went on to be at the top of my class at Brother Martin.
I also developed a strong relationship with God because of St. Catherine of Siena School and Parish – to the point where I brought my family back to the parish, and I’m raising my children the way I was raised in the Catholic Church.
Fr. Daniel Brouillette, St. Peter Elementary, Covington
I graduated in 1997 – as a member of the last eighth-grade class that graduated from St. Peter Elementary School. There were three boys and 23 girls that year, so it was fun!
St. Peter has always been an excellent high school preparatory school – which in turn prepares students for high schools that are college preparatory. St. Paul’s, my high school, picked up right where St. Peter left off, and put me on track to do well academically at both St. Ben’s and Notre Dame Seminary.
In elementary school, I had an idea that I wanted to become a priest, and two role models impressed me: our pastor at the time, Father William McGough, and our parochial vicar, Father Pat Wattigny.
Father Pat was ordained at 26, and I was in fourth grade when he came to St. Peter. I was one of his altar servers and witnessed, firsthand, his love for the priesthood, his love for youth and the way he fostered kids. Father Pat also taught a history and a theology class. His constant presence on campus and his affirmation were invaluable to us. He’s a big sports buff, so he would play with us on the grounds and take us to Zephyrs and Saints games.
One of the things that amazed me most was his ability to memorize every child’s name. That’s something, thanks be to God, that I’ve carried with me as pastor of Annunciation Church in Bogalusa – to be able to see a student at our school and call them by name and encourage them, especially if it’s a child who is struggling in some way.
Michele Barrere Tymkiw, Our Lady of Lourdes Elementary, Slidell
When Our Lady of Lourdes students got to high school, the teachers in those schools knew they had to place us ahead in pretty much every subject. They put us in the honors classes, because we had already covered everything that they were teaching.
My fourth-grade homeroom teacher, Susan Gray Needom, was amazing – much more holistic than teachers tended to be back then. She took our studies across all disciplines. For example, she went all over the school to collect the globes and gave each of us our own globe to work with. That year, we divided into groups to make home movies, and then we had a big showing of those movies. We’re talking about 1976. She was ahead of her time!
But what really made Our Lady of Lourdes School special is the friends I made. Today, when I see my childhood friends at church – whether it’s at Lourdes or other parishes – it is such a touching moment to be able to see my childhood friends with my own children, to see my children with their children.
Elementary and high schools in the Archdiocese of New Orleans named the following individuals as 2019 “Distinguished Alumni.”
• Archbishop Chapelle: Angelina Christina
• Archbishop Rummel: John Theriot
• Archbishop Shaw: Willie Marque
• Christ the King: Chris Roberts
• De La Salle: John J. Altobello Jr.
• Immaculate Conception: John Patrick Connick
• Jesuit: David Scotton
• Mary Queen of Peace: Kristin Lanoix Macke
• Mount Carmel Academy: Karen Vivien Conigliaro
• Our Lady of Lourdes, Slidell: Michele Barrere Tymkiw
• Our Lady of Prompt Succor, Chalmette: Jason Moran
• Our Lady of the Lake: Michelle Kennedy
• Pope John Paul II: Chad Swan
• Sacred Heart of Jesus, Norco: Jo Ann Oncale Prima
• St. Mary’s Academy: Cheryl Ross Brown
• St. Angela Merici: Jan Daniel Lancaster
• St. Anthony, Gretna: Julie Bodin
• St. Augustine: Raymond Fritz
• St. Catherine of Siena: Jeff Lionnet
• St. Charles Borromeo: Mary Schmidt
• St. Christopher: Carol Pond
• St. Cletus: Carl Kluttz
• St. Edward the Confessor: Aimee Bercegeay Gardner
• St. Francis Xavier: Kathleen Calder
• St. Mary’s Dominican: Patricia Warren Byrne
• St. Peter, Covington: Father Daniel Brouillette
• St. Philip Neri: Susan Chocheles Panzavecchia
• St. Rita, Harahan: Bryan Rauch
• St. Scholastica Academy: Sister Jeanne d’Arc Kernion
• Stuart Hall: Becker Hall
• Ursuline Academy: Deborah Augustine Elam
• Visitation of Our Lady: Gina Duplessis