Sunday, January 26, 2020
Cristina Cabrera Jarro
MIAMI | Members of Notre Dame Academy and Archbishop Curley’s class of 1969 have held regular reunions over the past decades. The most recent one took place over a weekend last August in Bal Harbour. But many of the Notre Dame alums expressed a desire to visit the site of their old school.
“Every time we would get together, we would say, ‘Wow, we have never been back to the school.’ You never think of going back and visiting,” said Elsa Reus, one of those 1969 alums. She currently works in community relations and as alumni director at Our Lady of the Lakes School in Miami Lakes.
Notre Dame Academy opened 1953 in historic Lemon City, known today as Little River and Little Haiti. The all-girls high school was staffed by the Sisters of St. Joseph of St. Augustine and later by the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters of Philadelphia. Archbishop Curley, Notre Dame’s all-boys counterpart, also opened in 1953, a few blocks down from Notre Dame. In 1981, Notre Dame merged with Curley, and the combined schools merged with Msgr. Edward Pace High in Miami Gardens in 2017.
Since that first merger, the Notre Dame Academy site, at 110 N.E. 62 Street, has served as the home of Notre Dame d’Haiti Mission.
At a meeting hosted by the archdiocesan Office of Development, Reus discussed the possibility of visiting the school with Sabrina Paul-Noel, vice president of Planned Giving and Development Services. Paul-Noel, a parishioner at Notre Dame d’Haiti, passed the message to her pastor, Father Reginald Jean-Mary, and he approved, inviting all alums from the class of 1969 to attend a recognition Mass for them Nov. 17, 2019.
The Sunday Mass brought 22 alums back to Notre Dame, some traveling from as far away as Texas.
“We felt so welcomed in the church. What a beautiful community. Father Reggie reserved three pews for us in the front, and he kept mentioning us throughout the Mass,” said Reus.
After the Mass, Paul-Noel gave them a tour of their former school. The bottom floor currently houses several ministries and services provided to the local Haitian community. But upon entering the second floor, the former classmates marveled.
“We just looked at that hallway, and it was like time was still, like time had not passed,” Reus said.
She described the hallways as looking the same as when they were filled with high school girls rushing to and from classes. Classroom doors still bore their old markings on the outside, including home economics.
“They don’t even teach home ec anymore,” Reus said laughing.
At the end of the row of rooms was Mrs. Hermo’s classroom. She was a Cuban teacher who taught French, and one of the only lay teachers in the school. The alums entered and found the desks arranged the same way they remembered, the blackboard intact at the front of the classroom. Many sat down in their same seats to recreate their French class from 50 years ago.
“Hermo was a tough one,” said Reus, who took four years of French and did well. Her classmate, Raissa Marzoa, was not so fortunate. She remembered Hermo yelling “Raisa! Zero” after exams.
A look at the windows reminded the alums of a time when the only air conditioning available was what the breeze blew in. Reus said they were simple times, and Miami still felt like a small town, one safe enough for students to ride the city bus to school and walk in the streets.
Miami became home for Reus after she left Cuba as a child in the early 1960s to escape the Castro regime. She was part of the Pedro Pan exodus of Cuban unaccompanied minors organized by a Miami priest, Father Bryan Walsh, and the Catholic Welfare Bureau — today’s Catholic Charities. Before her parents arrived to join her in the U.S., she attended Morningside Elementary for fifth and sixth grade.
Alone in a foreign country, barely familiar with the language, she remembers thinking, “What am I doing here? I came from Nuestra Señora de Lourdes, an all-girls school in Cuba. And here I am with boys in my class. English was my worse language in Cuba. I never liked it. But let me tell you, in two or three months, I could speak and converse in English,” said Reus.
Once her parents arrived, they insisted on a Catholic education. She completed seventh and eighth grade at St. Mary Cathedral School and went on to Notre Dame. Her brother and cousin went to Curley.
“I’m a firm believer in Catholic education, and I know it works,” said Reus, who sent her own children to Catholic school. Her friend and classmate, Mary Leon Trujillo, also believed in it, and sent all 10 of her children to St. Timothy School in Miami.
Reus said Notre Dame, and the women religious who staffed it, left an impression on her.
“The way the sisters molded us, we knew that we could tackle anything in life. Sometimes I say that us women are too assertive when we come out of an environment like that, but that is the way we were taught. We were very well rounded. They taught us how to type, how to sew, how to cook. Whether or not you went to college, you were prepared to deal with everything,” said Reus.
In fact, when the class of ‘69 gathers, they reminisce a lot about the sisters. They remember how even for senior prom the sisters asked their girls to stop by the convent to see them and their dates all dressed up.
“They enjoyed every facet of our lives because it was their lives,” said Reus. “The sisters dedicated their 24/7 to us and to the school.”