The History of Rayne Catholic Elementary
Father Joseph Antonio, a pious priest of St. Joseph Parish in Rayne, Louisiana, had a dream to bring the sisters of Mt. Carmel to this tiny settlement. Bon Pere Antonio, as he was referred to, did not live to see his dream fulfilled. He died of a stroke on August 15, 1891 and the Sisters of Mt. Carmel arrived on December 16, of that same year. His work was the “planting of the seed that yielded a hundredfold”- Catholic Education in Rayne.
Hardships were many for the Sisters’ home was incomplete when they arrived. The Archbishop of New Orleans stipulated that the Sisters receive and own the property on which the convent was built. The sum of $531.00 was paid to the St. Charles College in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, for the property with the understanding that the sisters give gratuitous education to the children whose parents were too poor to pay tuition.
The school opened on February 8, 1892 and in May of the same year the convent housed a class where boarding was afforded young girls. In 1899, Father Blasé Branche, the then pastor of St. Joseph Parish, supervised a plan to move the old church to the field south of the present Rayne Catholic School for a boy’s school that was nicknamed “Little Heaven.”
From its foundation in 1891 to 1929, Mt. Carmel Academy was a private school centered in the Rayne Catholic Elementary block. The two-story convent school housed both the sisters and the boarders with classrooms upstairs and downstairs. Mother Superior Camille Mouton guided the ever-growing institution from 1909 to 1917 serving as superintendent.
In 1929, the fourth pastor of St. Joseph Parish, Father Hubert Lerschen, directed his leadership to his greatest interest in education knowing that a well-established school was a “tower of Parochial strength.” His first step was to seek accreditation from the State of Louisiana. The new parochial school evolved and was named St. Joseph High School using five sisters of Mt. Carmel as the staff. The first year would handle up to and including the 8th grade and one grade level per year would be added if enrollment were justified. With only 11 grades in secondary schooling at that time, a standard graduation was projected for the year 1933.
The new decade of the 1940’s opened with more change. Lay teachers were added along with a band director. Also added was the six-man football team coached by Fathers L.C. Habetz and Ignatius Martin. The school also had a boxing team that competed against Cathedral High and Landry Memorial.
By 1941, the school and parish celebrated the 5oth anniversary celebration of the arrival of the Sisters of Mt. Carmel. That year the graduating class included 23 students. The Governor of Louisiana addressed the graduates. A stirring message of patriotism was delivered in which he reviewed the great need for religion and an abiding faith in the democratic way of life as the most effective weapon with which the great nation could face the uncertain future that lies ahead.
After the war years in 1948, St. Joseph High School received the news from the State Department of Education announcing the addition of a 12th year to the curriculum. Only the graduating class of 1948 was not dismayed with the news because they had completed their 11th and final year.
In the early 1950’s Father Lerschen, who was now a Monsignor, began to plan the construction of a new St. Joseph High School. In January 1957, the final plans of Grimball-Amerongen were submitted to the Bishop and the contract was awarded to Gossen Construction Company of Lafayette, the owner being a former parishioner and mayor, Joseph Gossen. By December 5, 1957, results of Monsignor’s effort were seen on the front page of the local newspaper. The “Grand day of Celebration for the Dedication of the Modernistic, St. Joseph High School” was enjoyed by the faculty, students, and parishioners of the parish.
By the mid 1960’s it was realized that times were changing. Monsignor had retired and fewer sisters were teaching. Times were difficult for parochial high schools, so consolidation was the talk of things to come. In November a quote from the local newspaper stated: “The proposed Notre Dame High School, serving 8 Catholic parishes in Acadia will open temporarily next fall on the St. Michael High School Campus.” Pastor Emery Labbe’ and members of the Lay Committee, as well as the students and faculty of St. Joseph High School played a large part in the transition that took place. In the spring of 1967 the last graduating class of “old St. Joe High” made its plans for a graduation that would always be remembered.
As the decade of the 1970’s dawned on the small Catholic school, there was to be another powerful change. When the 1971-1972 school session opened, St. Joseph Elementary and Our Mother of Mercy, both elementary Catholic schools of Rayne, sought to meet the social challenges of the times by pairing and coming together as one school. The local work began in the spring and by the opening of the 1971-1972 school year a newly named school, Rayne Catholic Elementary, opened with two campuses: grades 1 through 3 and 6 through 8 were housed at St. Joseph Hall and grades 4 and 5 at Mercy Hall. On Wednesday, September 1, 1971 the newly formed Rayne Catholic Elementary opened for class at both campuses with 462 students in attendance.
Throughout the decades of the 1970’s, 1980’s and early 1990’s the small school has always been able to come through as a shining light whether it faced a falling student enrollment, or the rising cost of educating a student. Today, there are no longer two campuses, and the Religious are no longer at the helm, steering the guiding path of the school. In 1994, the first lay principal, Dr. Sherry Cormier, was appointed. Mr. Blaine Castille was appointed the second lay principal in 2002. Mr. Fred Menard , the first graduate of Rayne Catholic to become principal of RCE, was named principal in 2007. Through their dedication, professionalism, and high expectations of providing quality Catholic education, registration continues to soar and a very well maintained campus are still the order of the day.
Over one hundred years of zeal for the love of God, the love of life and community, as well as the best of Catholic education at Rayne Catholic Elementary are not enough. Many local, civic and church leaders of the parish of Acadia and the church parish of St. Joseph who themselves attended as students here, look forward to the same quality of Catholic education for their children and grandchildren who are students today and will be in the future.