- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 30, 2005

PASCAGOULA, Miss. - Two Roman Catholic elementary schools have served Pascagoula for nearly 100 years. One opened to teach the children and grandchildren of freed slaves, and the other across town educated mostly white children.

But Hurricane Katrina’s winds changed the situation when St. Peter the Apostle, built in 1907 as a mission to blacks, was destroyed. Now blown together, 310 elementary students are integrated at Resurrection Catholic School’s campus.

“If there is somebody who is now upset because there are more black children, we don’t want them,” said Laura Murray, a mother at Resurrection who was helping prepare the water-damaged building for classes. “I don’t think there is anybody like that. This community doesn’t believe like that.”

Given St. Peter’s dire situation, school officials made the quick decision to get the students back on a regular schedule as soon as possible. All would attend Resurrection.

“It’s a triumph for the biracial South,” said Charles Reagan Wilson, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.

Many parents and teachers want the integrated school to remain, but Sister Bernadette McNamara, principal at St. Peter, worries about her students retaining their culture and identity. She remains at St. Peter, where all that is left usable are three classrooms.

The school’s youngest children arrive wearing neat plaid uniforms. They stand when Sister Bernadette enters each room and in unison say, “Good morning. God bless you.”

Putting her hand to her forehead and nodding, she said, “It’s always the black children who lose their school. I miss my school. I miss my children.”

The Rev. Mike Kelleher, pastor at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, which is affiliated with Resurrection, moved to Mississippi from Ireland 40 years ago during the civil rights movement. He talks of the storm as a catalyst for the strong feelings of acceptance that already brewed in the community.

“We do have a terrible name outside the Deep South,” Father Kelleher said of Mississippi. “The hurricane certainly gave new impetus to us working together as an integrated community.”

The united school is Father Kelleher’s dream come true. “I would hope that it’s going to be permanent,” he said.

The Diocese of Biloxi has the final say. Officials are sorting out insurance policies and determining what school buildings will stay and which will go.

Resurrection was still standing after the storm, but it sustained $1 million in damage.

But the sight of St. Peter and what the Sisters of the Holy Spirit have ahead of them is jarring. The roof collapsed, leaving classrooms piles of bricks and books visible from the street. The water-damaged gymnasium floor is caked with mold. Pink insulation covers the cafeteria.

“The building is condemned,” Sister Bernadette said during a walk through the school. “Everything is going to be knocked down.”

Still, she sees some hope for her students: At least they will be in school.

Referring to the blending of races in the Resurrection student body, she said, “It’s a blessing. In a way, it’s wonderful.”

Soon after Katrina, the area’s parochial students were scattered at schools across the region. Marian Swint, from nearby Grand Bay, Ala., has sons at Resurrection in fourth and sixth grade and said she watched with pride as they played with the children from St. Peter.

“If someone was playing football, they all were playing football,” she said. “It wasn’t the whites over here and the blacks over there. The kids don’t know the difference. It’s just another kid to play with.”

LaTaya Cobb, a St. Peter mother, voiced similar feelings when she dropped off her third-grader, Troy Cobb Jr., at Resurrection for his first day. He ran with the other children, and teachers directed him to the third-grade line.

“Race is not an issue for me,” Mrs. Cobb said, smiling and waving at her son. “I like for my kids to communicate with other groups.”

Mr. Wilson says Pascagoula’s embrace of the integrated schools is evidence that locals are “wanting an occasion to get away from separations that too often exist in schools in the South.”

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