Fifty years ago, Msgr. Bryan Walsh was busy helping to bring 15,000 Cuban children to Miami through Operation Pedro Pan.
Many of these young refugees lived in Florida City and received assistance from the Catholic Welfare Service, a program Walsh directed at the time.
In September 1963, two months before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and five months before Beatlemania reached our shores, Walsh had an epiphany.
“It was Monsignor’s wish that they’d be educated,” said Sister Kathryn Donzé, principal of Our Lady of Lourdes Academy, a private Catholic archdiocesan high school for girls in unincorporated South Miami-Dade. The school, Donzé said, is celebrating its 50th anniversary, thanks in part to the late Walsh’s recommendation in establishing Lourdes.
Lourdes opened with a freshman class of 69 students in two rooms. One homeroom was made up of all the young women, ages 14 to 17, whose parents sent them out of Cuba. They only spoke Spanish. The instructions were given in English. They would soon assimilate.
“It started there because there was a need,” Donzé said last week on the eve of a street-renaming that begins Lourdes’ year of celebrating its semi-centennial.
In its earliest incarnation, Lourdes would add one class per year. Within four years, enrollment reached 334 young women.
Currently, Lourdes educates 824 students. Annual tuition is $10,400 tuition, and need-based aid is “very limited.” The school is capped at 840 by Miami-Dade County and recently expanded its grounds to add a new building with 21 classrooms, renovated offices and a second-floor computer center. By its 51st year, Lourdes should finally have a new gym, and its basketball, volleyball and cheerleading teams will no longer have to rely on the good graces of two Catholic boys’ schools. Christopher Columbus High School and Belen Jesuit Preparatory School have opened their gyms to Lourdes athletic teams, which also includes swimming, soccer, softball, tennis and track.
Monday morning, the county designated a portion of Southwest 84th Street, between 54th Avenue and 57th Avenue as “OLLA Way.” About 1,000 students and alumni, school administrators and staff, and local leaders turned out for the occasion, which was followed a mass at Epiphany Catholic Church. Celebrations will culminate in March with a gala honoring 50 years as the region’s only archdiocesan girls high school.
“In 50 years, we have had a lot of people who have walked through the hallways of our school and they all leave footprints and all have contributed to the success. That is something to celebrate — the gift of the past and the blessings of the present,” Donzé said.
Lourdes graduates include singer Gloria Estefan, record-setting swimmer Karre Cox, and Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Bertila Soto.
“I always say that Lourdes is a gift I wish I could give every young lady that is in high school,” said Soto, 49. “Lourdes is one of the biggest inspirations of my life, not only scholastically but religiously and morally. I don’t think I would have been the same person if it weren’t for my experience at Lourdes.”
Soto has returned to her alma mater to help coach the school’s mock trial team. “I’ve a strong connection to the school.”
Gloria Ramos, assistant principal for academics, also has returned home after her 1983 graduation.
“I feel it was a unique environment. We’re an all-girls school and that gave me the confidence and empowered me to do things I don’t know that I would have done had I been in a coed environment,” Ramos said. “They challenged me to think and to get out of my comfort zone in a nurturing and loving environment. We didn’t have to worry about social issues you have to worry about in classes with boys.”
Patrick Bassett, a past-president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Independent Schools, called any school’s 50th anniversary, “a high-water mark,” he said from his office in Gainesville, Virginia.
Though Lourdes, run by the Immaculate Heart of Mary, is not an independent school, its longevity dovetails with a feature he wrote recently for Independent School Magazine — What It Means to be Fifty — in which Bassett, now a consultant, opined that once a school hits 50 “its chances of living forever improve dramatically.”
The challenge is to stay current and anticipate the accelerating changes in education in a plugged-in world.
“One’s continued success depends upon school leaders, parents, alumni, students and donors making an ongoing commitment to building the school and its brand, and that the school evolves to meet the rapidly changing expectations for what schools should do and how they should operate,” he wrote.
Donzé says the school’s mission remains entrenched — “to educate our young women so they have a strong faith when they leave and are confident and committed to their church and to their country, a formation of the whole person.” But the changing means of communication will have to be addressed to chart a course for the next 50.
“The challenges in the years to come will be additional improvements that will come with technology. But you have to teach to be responsible users of the technology,” she said.
“One of the challenges will be interpersonal communication. The youth is so attached to different forms of technology, their iPhones and iPads, it becomes all-consuming. Their major way of communicating is through Twitter and emails, and you don’t see facial expressions and body language and communication. You don’t get to know the person,” Donzé said. “So I think a lot of education has to be done in that area and we are making our youth aware of that.”
Walsh could not have envisioned a school in which students were a-twitter on social media but Ramos thinks he would appreciate one constant:
“We continue to provide a Catholic education in an all-girl environment, and we’re continuing to adapt to the ever-changing world in which we live in and we are continuing to make sure we are true to our mission and providing our kids with a competitive advantage for their future college and career choices,” Ramos said. “That’s what got us here for the last 50 years.”
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