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.”