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Gulf Coast Roman Catholic schools devastated by Katrina

BILOXI, Miss.—Bobby Trosclair Jr., the principal at Mercy Cross High School, never dreamed he'd be in charge of the school he graduated from in 1991. And he never thought a hurricane would destroy that school more than a decade after he got his diploma.

Hurricane Katrina left Mercy Cross and many other Roman Catholic schools along the Gulf Coast uninhabitable. Because they're privately run, they don't receive state funding and depend on tuition, parish support and fund-raisers to stay in business.

But many of the parents in the Diocese of Biloxi were left unemployed by the storm and can't pay tuition. Twenty of the churches in the diocese that supported several of the schools financially are facing the same dire straits.

Nationwide, Catholic-based organizations and private donors are sending money and other resources, but the need is still palpable.

Trosclair said his school was flooded by 15 feet of water and had roof damage and other structural problems. Since Sept. 26, classes have been in three nearby buildings, with no intercom or Internet. The administrative office operates from a trailer, and the staff conducts business with cell phones.

Of the 18 schools in the Biloxi Diocese, Mercy Cross was one of 10 that either were destroyed or severely damaged.

An estimated 60,000 of the 2.6 million students who attend Catholic schools nationwide were displaced by the hurricane, according to the National Catholic Educational Association, based in Washington.

Association officials said schools in New Orleans were slowly coming back to life and that some Mississippi schools had taken in displaced students from Louisiana.

Catholic schools in both states are seeking financial assistance.

Since Katrina, Mercy Cross' $1.3 million budget has been reduced to about $450,000, Trosclair said. Student enrollment has dropped from 322 to 300. There are 39 families who can't pay tuition, and Trosclair expects that number to almost double.

Biloxi's diocese superintendent, Michael Ladner, has said that no child will be turned away this year regardless of his or her financial situation, but he admits that that policy may not last.

"To take a quote used by diocese Bishop Thomas J. Rodi, `We were insured for a disaster, not a catastrophe,'" Ladner said. "We need funds to help keep the doors open to our schools."

Because of the financial pressures since the hurricane, Ladner said, he's had to cut the diocese's estimated $201,000 budget by 20 percent. He's also eliminated travel money for his office this year and laid off nearly 60 teachers.

Ladner said the diocese had applied for a disaster relief loan from the Small Business Administration, but didn't expect to receive it. The diocese also is hoping to get support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for textbooks, debris cleanup and other assistance.

The diocese soon will receive help from the National Catholic Educational Association, spokeswoman Barbara Keebler said. Under its "Child to Child" education campaign, launched the week after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the organization has collected more than $800,000. The campaign will end Oct. 31 and the money will be distributed through Dec. 31 to area Catholic schools.

Keebler said the association hadn't determined how much the Diocese of Biloxi will receive. "We look to the (respective) diocese to identify what the need is," she said. "We know Biloxi will have a great need because of the thousands of students there."

She said the association was encouraging Catholic parishes outside the region to adopt schools along the Gulf Coast. It's also working to find jobs for displaced teachers.

Schools in the Biloxi Diocese are rallying back after the storm.

At Mercy Cross, Trosclair said he continued to look forward to his favorite part of the day: standing in front of the buildings to greet students before school.

"Every day gets better than the day before," he said. "That's the only way to look at this."

Against the backdrop of the Gulf of Mexico, near piles of rubble mixed with the remains of Biloxi's 1850s-era Dantzler House and pieces of their elementary school, students at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary are trying find some sense of normalcy, said its principal, Sister Mary Jo Mike.

Although it was heavily scaled back, the school hosted its annual Halloween carnival with booths and food—but without a haunted house. The kids have been through enough horror, Mike said, adding that 20 of the 120 families at Nativity won't be able to pay full tuition this year.

For weeks, disaster relief workers ate lunch at the school and helped clean the property. Nativity's gymnasium, now filled with donated food, sustained the most damage.

A can of corn sits atop a trophy case in the main hall. A note wrapped around the can, a donation from the Islamic Center of Virginia Youth Group, reads "Our prayers are with you."

"We've tried to keep things as normal as possible," Mike said. "People have just been exceedingly generous."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CATHOLICSCHOOLS

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