This text was used in a November 2009 discussion with officials from the Diocese of Lafayette regarding the fate of Holy Rosary Institute. Shortly after this meeting, talks began between the Diocese and the Sisters of the Holy Family which resulted the Holy Rosary Institute property being returned to the order by the Diocese.
In 1913, when Father Philip Keller bought 82 acres of land on the outskirts of the town of Lafayette for the purpose of building a school to further his mission of working among African American Catholics in southwest Louisiana, he was acting on the imperatives of his faith and his order’s belief in the basic humanity of one of this country’s oppressed minorities.
This was no small matter at the time. It was 17 years after Plessey v. Ferguson made African Americans second-class citizens in this country. It was just 15 years after the Louisiana Constitutional Convention of 1898 took away all but the slimmest claims to citizenship for African Americans in Louisiana.
Lynching was epidemic across the country. Laws in Louisiana and other southern states forbade the formal education of African Americans for all but the basic tools needed to engage in productive work.
Father Keller’s purchase caused his path to intersect with those of other Catholic religious leaders who shared this belief in the basic humanity of African Americans. The Holy Family order came to support Father Keller’s project. This order of African American nuns provided teachers for his Holy Rosary Institute. They also provided the financial support needed to pay for the purchase of the land. The order came to own the land as a result of this support.
This was no ordinary building. The population of Lafayette Parish in 1910 was 24,000. The city of Lafayette had just over 8,000 residents. Southwest Louisiana Industrial Institute (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette) was in its infancy, having just a handful of buildings on its campus.
In the country outside of town, Father Keller – with the help of Mother Drexel and the Holy Family order – built not just a school but they erected monument to their shared commitment to social justice which they believed their shared Catholic faith compelled them to undertake.
In an era where providing full education to African Americans was illegal, Father Keller, Mother Drexel and the Holy Family partnered to erect a magnificent structure – one of the largest in Lafayette Parish – to be used in the conduct of that illegal activity.
It was an audacious expression of their shared belief in the basic humanity of African Americans as well as a defiant response to the injustices perpetrated against that race by those whose world view rested on the denial of that very humanity.
Holy Rosary Institute went on to become a fountain of talent and inspiration for Catholic African Americans in southwest Louisiana for decades to come.
But, it was always more than a building and some property.
The sacredness of the facility has begun to come into focus in recent years, first, through the canonization of now Saint Katharine Drexel. Venerable Henriette DeLille, founder of the Holy Family order is also a candidate for canonization.
Holy Rosary Institute, then, represents the intersection of the lives and holy work of three saintly Catholics, one a saint, another a potential saint, and the third a man who carried on a sacred mission that is consistent with the life work of the other two.
There are few – if any other – places in North America where the lifework of a saint, a potential saint and priest on a sacred mission intersect. Holy Rosary Institute in one such place.
As we approach the centennials of both the founding of Holy Rosary Institute (1913) and the construction of the main building (1915), there is both the opportunity and the need for this facility to be restored but also for Holy Rosary Institute to be returned to a place of prominence in the Catholic African American community in the Diocese and the region.
This can best be accomplished by recommitting the property and its facilities to the founders’ mission of making Holy Rosary a center for educational, economic, social and spiritual development.
The main building can be restored through an array of public and private funding sources available for historic redevelopment projects of this nature.
However, reconnecting the building to its original mission of using faith as the basis for pursuing and achieving social justice, Holy Rosary property can not only be revitalized, but it can serve as a catalyst and base fro the Diocese’ ongoing faith-based social justice initiatives.
This is no mere redevelopment project. Restoring Holy Rosary affords the Diocese, the Catholic African American community, and people of good will of all faiths a point from which they can both look back and step forward. Look back at the historic record of the Church, its clergy and the laity in the pursuit of social justice in this region; step forward through creation of a center for faith and social justice where those interested in the unfinished work of the Gospel can come for both guidance and inspiration.
The way to sustainable restoration and redevelopment of Holy Rosary Institute rests in reconnecting it with the unfinished work of its original mission.
This will be no small undertaking. But, there are people in the community and across the country that know the Holy Rosary story and who stand ready to help provide the resources and guidance needed to accomplish this renewal.
Time (four years shy of the centennial) and circumstances (the deplorable condition of the main building) indicate that the time for action is now.
We humbly request a conversation with Bishop Jarrell so that we can convey to him the urgency of the moment and the sincerity of our commitment to work with him to restore and reinvigorate this sacred ground for the benefit of the Church and the faithful of this region.